On December 11, the Hartford City Council approved a state grant that would allow the Hartford Police Department to increase its surveillance camera program and to purchase two drones. Separately, these two programs threaten civil liberties. Together, they could be a nightmare for anyone who cares about safety, justice, equality, and freedom in the capital city. Police drones and surveillance cameras could make Hartford less safe, violate people’s privacy, chill protesters’ rights, and disproportionately hurt people of color, immigrants, and low-income people.

The grant allows the Hartford Police Department to buy two drones, which the department says it will use for ATV chases and “crowd control” at public events. But there aren’t any city ordinances to keep these police drones in check, and “crowd control” by police drone can mean police harassing and intimidating protesters with drone surveillance. The grant also promises to fund predictive policing and to increase camera surveillance in low-income neighborhoods—two initiatives that ignore public safety needs and could increase injustice.

Here are just some ways that increasing surveillance cameras and police drone use could hurt anyone who lives in, works in, or visits Hartford:

  • Increasing police surveillance in Hartford can contribute to mass incarceration, racial injustice, and the criminalization of poverty. The city has said that it will prioritize surveillance in areas where people of color and low-income people primarily live, which means that people of color and low-income people will disproportionately be the targets of police spying. Given Hartford’s unconstitutional ordinance banning anyone—a low-income person, a charity worker, a political campaigner—from asking for money near bus stops, the city could use these drones and cameras to target people who are asking for help.
  • Predictive policing threatens people’s rights, ignores community safety needs, and contributes to some neighborhoods being over-policed and under-protected. The grant promises to fund predictive policing in the capital city. Predictive policing, which claims to be able to predict crime based on flawed and seriously biased data gathered by police surveillance cameras and reports, is a serious threat to justice and liberty. Decades of criminology research have shown that crime reports and other statistics gathered by the police primarily document law enforcement’s responses to the reports they receive and situations they encounter, rather than providing a consistent or complete record of all the crimes that occur. As a result, predictive policing reinforces biased policing while sanitizing injustice with a veneer of data.
  • Hartford’s status as a welcoming place for immigrants is seriously undermined by surveillance cameras and drones. Depending on which channels ICE, the FBI, or other federal agencies use to demand information from the Hartford Police Department, city police may not be able to stop ICE, or other federal agencies from accessing drone or surveillance camera footage. The lack of clarity on the rules for how Hartford police will collect, store, and share the surveillance footage that they gather through drones or cameras also means the public is in the dark regarding how city police will treat requests for surveillance footage from the federal government, including ICE. This threatens Hartford’s self-proclaimed status as a sanctuary city and could violate the privacy of anyone who works, lives, shops, eats, or protests in the capital city.
  • Drones and cameras could have a chilling effect on protests. As Connecticut’s capital city, Hartford is a critical place for debate. Allowing police to use these spying devices unchecked, all under the auspices of “crowd control,” could undermine people’s abilities to speak freely about important issues affecting the city and the state.  
  • There are no Hartford city ordinances or state laws to keep police drones in check. Without any outside oversight of police drones, police are left to police themselves—and that isn’t what we expect in a democracy. The Hartford Police Department has said in the past that it doesn’t see a need for weaponized police drones in the city, but there aren’t any city or state rules to prevent them from attaching weapons to drones in the future. Similarly, there aren’t any basic ground rules to prevent Hartford police from using drones for surveillance or chases without warrants, to require police to publicly report every time they use a drone, or to clarify whether police will share drone surveillance footage with ICE, the FBI, or other federal agencies.

The ACLU of Connecticut doesn’t oppose placing surveillance cameras at specific, high-profile public places, such as the State Capitol Building. And we don’t oppose police using drones for legitimate public safety reasons, such as helping to find a missing person. But the impulse to blanket Hartford’s public spaces, residential neighborhoods, and main streets with surveillance, or to control protesters or neighborhoods by buzzing over with drones, is a bad idea. It’s a fundamental betrayal of America’s promises of freedom and equality and of Hartford’s promise to protect immigrants, and it won’t make our capital city safer or more just.

The city council voted 7-2 to approve this surveillance grant—Minority Leader Wildaliz Bermúdez and Councilman Larry Deutsch voted against the proposal. The least the council can do now is create rules to keep these potentially dangerous tools in check. If Hartford is going to purchase police drones, it shouldn’t buy them until the city has adopted an ordinance that prevents the Hartford Police Department from weaponizing drones, prohibits police from using drones for surveillance or chases without warrants, requires police to publicly report every time they use a drone, and creates a strict policy that restricts sharing drone footage with the FBI, ICE, or other federal agencies. And if the city is going to increase its surveillance camera program, it shouldn’t use predictive policing—unless that predictive policing is going to be used to predict and prevent police misconduct.