Newtown police critiqued after CT scholar studies 500 body camera videos

Photo of Rob Ryser

NEWTOWN — It was a test the Newtown Police Department didn’t know it took until 500 body camera videos were reviewed from a two-month period in early 2020, and scores were awarded.

In one of the first known body-worn camera studies of its kind in the country, Newtown officers earned either an A or an A- for respectful language, for transparency in explaining police procedure, for fairness in handling responses, and for having a calming presence, the research shows.

What score did Newtown police get from the people who were assisted, stopped, questioned, ticketed and arrested in those 500 bodycam videos? Researchers scored the people’s overall feeling about the officers during those videoed interactions with police as a B, with 84 percent of the public appearing “very satisfied with the encounter.”

“The outcome of the police-community interaction is less important to the person than the way they were treated” said James McCabe, a retired New York City Police Department inspector and an associate professor of criminal justice at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, who conducted the study. “Police body-worn cameras are as essential as the police officer’s car, radio and weapon.”

Newtown police Chief James Viadero, who invited McCabe to conduct the body-worn camera study, said he was not surprised by the new data, because his officers practice a standard known as procedural justice, which emphasizes fairness, transparency, and respect in police interactions with the public.

“That’s the most important thing here,” Viadero said last week. “I don’t care who you are — nobody wants to get stopped, but the officer can address you as ‘sir’ and treat you with respect.”

Viadero was referring to a study presented earlier this month to the Police Commission that gave Newtown officers positive scores in 95 percent of the videos for respectful language, in 94 percent of the videos for fairness, in 92 percent of the videos for de-escalation and in 91 percent of the videos for transparency.

Among the incidents were 83 traffic stops, 80 vehicle accidents, 36 crime reports, 30 arrests, 23 disputes and seven complaints of suspicious activity, recorded in March and April of 2020. In four of the 500 bodycam videos, an officer used force — twice in separate encounters on the same man during a driving while intoxicated arrest. The man was described in the study as “belligerent, disrespectful and hostile toward the officer.”

Although officers here and across Connecticut know their body-worn cameras can be reviewed at any time, this is one of the first known studies where researchers have scored officers on procedural justice and escalation standards on a large scale.

The effect of such data, McCabe said, is far-reaching as a tool to evaluate officer conduct department-wide, as a mechanism for improved community trust and as a basis for more studies.

“It’s laying the foundation for the next iteration of studies,” said McCabe, who plans to present the Newtown study at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences national conference in March. “There is a lot of potential here.”

Bodycams in the headlines

Newtown’s body camera study follows headlines this summer about a lawsuit and disciplinary actions involving Danbury police officers after a recorded confrontation with a man shooting video at Danbury Library. One of the officers, who was recorded on police body camera footage saying to the videomaker that he would have been “dead” 20 years ago, faced an eight-day suspension without pay and remedial training.

Newtown’s study comes at a time of heightened awareness about police relationships with communities they serve, partly because of widespread unrest and calls for reform in the wake of the George Floyd death at the hands of police last year. Connecticut’s state legislature passed a landmark police reform bill last summer, for example, that strived to hold officers personally accountable for misconduct, among other measures.

There is nothing specifically in that bill that directs departments to use body-worn cameras to improve policing, other than the state policy that supervisors should “audit” bodycams, Viadero said.

Moreover, the Newtown study was commissioned before the May 25, 2020 slaying of Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis led to widespread civil unrest.

“This idea came before that,” said Viadero, an adjunct professor at Sacred Heart University, who began discussing the study with his faculty colleague McCabe in early 2020. “Transparency is always a concern, so we wanted to bring in an outside entity.”

A member of Newtown’s Police Commission commended Viadero for commissioning the study.

“These are excellent tools for both sides to ensure there is a fair evaluation of any given interaction,” said Neil Chaudhary. “I think the chief is being very proactive with this.”

McCabe, a member of a monitor team that was appointed to oversee the reform process of the New York City Police Department when a federal court found its “stop, question and frisk” policy unconstitutional, said the more departments that use body-worn camera to their advantage, the better policing will be.

“We know that police overall do an excellent job in our communities,” McCabe said. “We also know we’re better when we’re being watched.” 203-731-3342