(Opinion)—During the past few months, the budget for the City of New Haven has become a hotly contested issue. The city is facing a $20 million deficit in its Board of Education, rising costs for health benefits in its pensions, and a decline in financial support from the state. These conditions force New Haven residents to live by the motto, “we have to do more with less.” In order to address the city’s problems, some tough budgetary decisions were made.
Last week, the Board of Alders eliminated a position titled, “Body-Worn Camera Tech,” within the New Haven Police Department’s budget. The position is needed to maintain the efficiency and functionality of the body cameras worn by our police officers. The salary for this position was listed at $50,000 per year and, given the budgetary restraints facing the city, the position was removed from consideration.
I believe that the consequences of this action far outweigh the cost to fund this position.
Outfitting officers with body cameras has been a crucial step forward in the process of building trust between police departments and the communities that they serve. The particular lack of trust between the police and communities of color has been on national display since the events that occurred in Ferguson, Mo., New York, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Minnesota. These events have proven that while recorded footage is often difficult to watch, it helps to ensure transparency and accountability for both police and citizens.
The New Haven Police Department is one of the most progressive and community-centered police departments in the country, garnering national recognition in publications like The New York Times. In order to live up to that reputation, the department, with support from the city and the community, fought to secure body cameras for New Haven police officers. The Greater New Haven Clergy Ministerial Alliance strongly supported this effort and helped to secure a grant for this equipment in 2018.
The question that I pose today is: What is the purpose of having body cameras if we are not willing to service and maintain them?
That is the job of the body-worn camera tech—the very position that the Board of Alders recently eliminated. This is like purchasing a car but not securing an auto mechanic in the inevitable event of a malfunction. It is simply not good enough to have body cameras without providing the technical support for their maintenance. What will happen if an altercation arises between the police and community and the body camera footage is not readily available to the public? Such an occurrence could destroy the relationships currently being forged.
We have already seen positive results from the use of body cameras in our city. Earlier this year, body camera footage allowed citizens to witness officers attempting to use their tasers on a gentleman in a convenience store. This resulted in the officers receiving additional training at the Police Academy.
This past Tuesday, we observed officers arrest a young man at the Green in a manner that might have infringed upon his First Amendment right of free speech. Police Chief Anthony Campbell has ordered a probe on this questionable arrest. The results from these two examples would have been impossible without the use of body cameras and the expeditious release of their footage.
I understand that tough choices had to be made in regards to the budget. But, I strongly believe that funding the position of body-worn camera tech is a necessity, not a luxury. We will send the wrong message to our police officers and the community if we fail to fund this position. There is too much at stake for us to play budgetary politics with public safety. I, respectfully, urge the Board of Alders to reconsider their stance.
Steven Anthony Cousin Jr. is a New Haven resident and pastor of Bethel AME Church.