The town of Wethersfield will step up public surveillance in 2020 by installing cameras at several traffic locations. But the enhanced law enforcement is alarming to people who have criticized the way Wethersfield’s police department operates.
The 12 pan, tilt and zoom cameras, which shoot in high definition, will be installed on primary roads throughout the town -- like the Silas Deane Highway and the Berlin Turnpike.
Wethersfield Police Chief James Cetran said the camera project is aimed at deterring crime as part of a regional police effort designed to keep criminals out.
“The ultimate goal of this is that we’re doing so well with solving these crimes that people won’t come into Wethersfield to commit the crimes anymore,” Cetran said on Feb. 19, 2019, the night Wethersfield’s Town Council approved the project upon his recommendation.
That doesn’t sit well with David McGuire, the executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He called Cetran’s explanation for putting up the cameras “deeply problematic.”
“This is a really thinly veiled way of saying ‘keeping people that they don’t like how they look out of their city,’” said McGuire.
Megan Faver Hartline lives in Wethersfield and is a leader with the Wethersfield Women For Progress, a group formed to fight inequality. She says her thoughts don’t represent the views of everyone else in the group, noting the polarizing nature of how law enforcement conducts itself in the town.
“I was concerned by Chief Cetran’s comments about how Wethersfield has a reputation for having low crime because of how aggressive the Wethersfield PD is,” she said. “What I’ve heard over and over again from people who I work with in Hartford especially is that the Hartford-Wethersfield border is very over-policed and that people of color are regularly stopped with no apparent reason.”
“This further surveillance of our intersections is just going to make that problem worse,” she said.
Hartline then pointed to something that also alarms McGuire -- that Wethersfield has been flagged consistently for significant racial disparities in its traffic stops by Central Connecticut State University’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, a unit that works on behalf of the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project.
An IMRP analyst has said that Wethersfield’s police department is the only one out of 107 examined in the state that “consistently keeps appearing in the dataset.”
Cetran has rejected the notion that his department has engaged in racial profiling.
“We don't have any officers here that are racially profiling,” Cetran said last year when asked about the data. “If I did, I’d fire him.”
Cetran spoke to Connecticut Public Radio at a time of intense scrutiny for Wethersfield. Last April, on Silas Deane Highway -- one of the roads that town officials say will be surveilled under the plan -- Officer Layau Eulizier Jr. fatally shot Anthony Jose Vega Cruz, 18, after an attempted traffic stop.
Eulizier remains on administrative duty as the investigation into the police shooting continues.
Connecticut Public Radio made several attempts to reach out to the Wethersfield Police Department and Cetran by email and phone, but those efforts were unsuccessful.
Regional Policing In Real Time
Wethersfield is embarking on the camera project without a major partner, despite a promise from Cetran to council members.
“We’re actually going to tap into Hartford’s system,” Cetran told the council last year.
Cetran was talking about plugging into Hartford’s Real-Time Crime and Data Intelligence Center called the Capitol City Command Center, or C4. One way of doing it, according to Cetran, would be to run fiber-optic cables from his town to a camera on Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford.
Cetran wants Hartford crime analysts to monitor Wethersfield roads in real time. It was a promise that some on the Town Council found attractive.
But while Hartford has entertained discussions about a regional crime-monitoring unit, Lt. Paul Cicero of the Hartford Police Department said that’s about as far as it’s gone.
“There was a lot of conversation and dialogue in regards to having perhaps an analyst from outside of the city of Hartford -- an outside employee -- working here, working basically as a command center crime analyst for surrounding towns,” said Cicero.
“No other agencies have accessibility to our system -- nor do we provide it to anybody else,” Cicero said.
At least two Wethersfield town councilors who approved the plan said they did so with the understanding that Wethersfield police would be tapping into Hartford’s system.
“I did not know that Wethersfield’s camera surveillance system and Hartford’s are not connected,” said Democrat Amy Morrin-Bello, who was Wethersfield’s mayor when the meeting took place, in an email to Connecticut Public Radio. “It was my understanding that they would be.”
Republican Michael Rell has since replaced Bello as mayor.
“Those were conversations I guess at the time that the chief had with folks from Hartford PD, and he relayed those comments onto us and that’s why we voted unanimously to go along with it,” Rell said.
Both Rell and predecessor Morrin-Bello said that having knowledge of Wethersfield’s actual ability to partner up with Hartford on surveillance wouldn’t have changed their votes.
Megan Faver Hartline didn’t know about the cameras until she was contacted for this story. She said that’s part of the problem, and she thinks the project warrants a closer look, given what she considers a lack of clarity in the project’s description.
“I’m disappointed that the council didn’t look for more public input or ask harder questions,” Hartline said. “I was really surprised to find out that this had actually been approved by our Town Council almost a year ago and that this is not something that’s come up in the past year as a thing that people seem to know about and are invested in investigating.”
Regardless of public input -- and even without Hartford being connected to the increase in surveillance -- Wethersfield is moving forward with the installation.
Town Manager Gary Evans said the town still hopes to be part of a regional surveillance unit and is willing to engage other towns.
“You throw it out there as, ‘We have a regional perspective, we have a regional bid, we have the ability -- everybody can piggyback on the system -- who wants in?’” Evans said. “Wethersfield is proactive in saying ‘We want in.’”
In December, Evans told Connecticut Public Radio that the cameras would be up in the next seven to 10 months.
The town is paying for the cameras with money recovered via civil asset forfeiture -- when police take property, including cash, they believe was involved in a criminal act.