In December, the Hartford City Council gave the go-ahead for the city to apply for a $2.5 million grant to expand police surveillance in Connecticut’s capital city. This grant would enable Hartford police to purchase two high-powered drones and to expand Hartford’s existing police surveillance network.
I live in Hartford, and I love this city. Like a lot of people here, I worry about whether our city government is taking us in the right direction and prioritizing things that will make us stronger. Unchecked police surveillance won’t make us safer, but it will threaten our city’s values. I’m proud of Hartford residents’ strong tradition of debate and protest, and of the city government’s past decisions to welcome immigrants and stand for women's rights and LGBT rights. But if our city government fails to take control of police surveillance, it could undermine all of those things.
This week, I testified at the Hartford City Council about my concerns about unchecked police surveillance, as someone who calls this city home and as an ACLU of Connecticut staff member. Here is what I said:
“My name is Melvin Medina; I am a Hartford resident and Director of Strategic Initiatives at the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. I am joined by my colleague, Kaley Lentini, who is legislative counsel for our organization. I would like to thank the Council for the opportunity to testify in support of Councilmember Wildaliz Bermudez's proposal that would establish practical guidelines on the use of drones by police. We need policies that protect our civil liberties from unjust surveillance, not promises from police that wrongdoing will not occur. In light of recent developments related to Hartford's mass surveillance center, it is imperative that the Council set proper safeguards to protect Hartford residents’ basic rights.
As City Council members, you are empowered by state law as the primary oversight body that sets policy and practice for the Hartford Police Department. An internal police administrative policy can be one tool for taking control of police surveillance, and it can and should meet or exceed this ordinance. Those internal policies, however, are not the avenues through which we should hold a public debate on the kind of city we want to live in. I do not vote for my chief of police; I vote for you. As a resident of this city, I am hopeful that this Council will take its oversight and policy-making role seriously.
There are members of the Hartford community here who share our concerns about the unintended consequences that mass dragnet surveillance can have on the people of this city. And we wonder: do you share our concern that HPD's surveillance data sharing agreements with federal agencies undermine this city's decade-long commitment to being a sanctuary for the undocumented community? Do you share our concern that blanketing the city with surveillance cameras and implementing facial recognition technology threatens a woman's right to private medical counsel if her movements can be tracked and retraced as she enters the door of her local reproductive health center? Do you share our concern that over-policing the activities associated with poverty and addiction feed our community members into the criminal justice system instead of addressing their underlying needs? Do you share our concern that LGBTQ youth who are experiencing homelessness may become the targets of surveillance at our public parks, instead of getting the help they need? Do you share our concern that activists organizing for the empowerment of Black and brown communities will be labeled “extremists” whose movements and activities in this city become the focus of digital dossiers? We need policies that protect our civil liberties, not promises from police that wrongdoing will not occur.
"We need policies that protect our civil liberties, not promises from police that wrongdoing will not occur."
Councilmember Bermudez's proposed ordinance is an important first step in addressing these concerns. This proposed ordinance would ban the weaponization of drones, mandate public reporting from police about how they use drones, and require that all future applications for the acquisition of surveillance technology by HPD be published and made available to the City Council and would require a vote of approval. Importantly, this ordinance also sets clear guidelines for when police can use drones. Specifically, these six allowances are the following: 1) when police have attained a warrant; 2) when police have been given written consent by either a person who is the target of information collection or the owner of a private property that is the target of information collection; 3) when exigent circumstances, such as emergency search and rescue operations, make it unreasonable for a police officer to obtain a warrant; 5) when police conduct training activities; and 6) when police need to reconstruct or document a specific crime or accident scene.
We strongly believe these allowances strike the right balance between protecting Hartford residents from over-policing and securing public safety. I urge this committee to move this ordinance forward.”
I wasn’t alone. The City Council also heard from advocates with CT Students for a Dream, who testified about the ways in which mass police surveillance threatens undocumented people and creates fear in immigrant communities. Councilors heard from everyday Hartford residents who were afraid of what it could mean to unleash police drones without clear rules to govern how police use them, and from activists who spoke about the fear that police surveillance can create at protests.
The City Council needs to act to create rules to protect people from unjust surveillance in our city. In the meantime, Hartford residents can keep raising our voices to let the Council know that when it comes to unchecked mass surveillance, Hartford shouldn’t have it.