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Camera Network Plan Sparks Privacy Debate in Connecticut City

New cameras and equipment will be coming to Danbury's downtown area, after the City Council agreed to accept a $100,000 donation to upgrade its existing and aging camera network. Not all welcome the upgrades.

(TNS) — New cameras and equipment will be coming to the city's downtown, after the City Council agreed to accept a $100,000 donation from CityCenter Danbury to upgrade its existing and aging network of cameras.

The council voted 16-to-3 to accept the funds during its Oct. 3 meeting. Before the vote, some skeptical Democratic City Council members said they were seriously concerned about the implications of accepting monies to support city infrastructure and questioned whether the proposal itself could threaten the privacy of downtown residents. The new equipment will replace inoperable traffic cameras, but locations of new cameras haven't been decided, officials said.

Council members who opposed accepting the funds also posed concerns about whether CityCenter would be able to access the city's secure fiber optic network and the closed circuit surveillance footage — the organization wouldn't, officials said. One council member portrayed the proposal as a "precursor" to widespread surveillance.

A city public safety official and CityCenter leaders, meanwhile, acknowledged those concerns and promised the intention of the proposal is to increase safety and security, and not to actively surveil civilians.

Art Stueck is chairman of CityCenter Danbury's board of commissioners and the owner of a property management company. When reached by phone Tuesday, Stueck said the only way to affordably prevent and thoroughly solve crime is through the installation of cameras.

"I am a firm believer that cameras do help deter crime," Stueck said.


The council's discussion of the donation last week came after an ad hoc committee recommended the council accept it. During the council's discussions, minority leader Paul Rotello motioned to refer the proposal back to an ad hoc committee for further vetting. That motion failed, by a 12-to-7 vote. The council then took up its original motion to accept the funds.

The council discussed it for more than 30 minutes.

More than 20 minutes into that discussion, council member Benjamin Chianese posed a question to city Emergency Management Director Matthew Cassavechia and Jessica Granger, a CityCenter representative, about whether CityCenter itself would have access to the camera footage and the city's network.

"No. That was never the intention," Cassavechia said.

"Can CityCenter back that up?" Chianese followed.

Granger similarly replied, "No, CityCenter will not have access to these cameras. And that was never the intention."

Leaders on Tuesday maintained that CityCenter would not have direct access to the cameras.

"They will be owned by the police — owned and controlled," Stueck said.

Cassavechia, when reached by phone, explained several steps will be taken before cameras are actually installed.

"We have a ways to go. We are going to be meeting with a number of different stakeholders in the next couple of months," Cassavechia said, noting those stakeholders will include public safety officials along with CityCenter leaders.

Cassavechia said a lot of the framework for the cameras is already in place downtown. City leaders will work with stakeholders to assess specific areas where cameras will be placed. The group will also look at different camera manufacturers to make sure the cameras that are ultimately ordered all align.

Cassavechia described the initiative as another tool that will assist the city's first responders. "We're enthused about it," he said. "We've been looking at this initiative for some time. Really it's just a matter of improving situational awareness for our first responders with safety and security in mind. This is a tremendous bolster to the existing program. It's going to assist us in key intersections and key areas."


Council members, like Duane Perkins, who represents the 5th Ward, had questions and concerns.

At the outset of the council's discussion a week ago, Perkins asked Granger why CityCenter would donate to the city, rather than set up Internet-based camera systems as the organization saw fit.

Granger responded, "It seemed like a good idea to have an integrated system that would more broadly benefit the city of Danbury, and have an integrated solution, versus a disjointed solution."

Granger later added that CityCenter heard from downtown property owners and constituents who stated they are concerned about security and monitoring public safety hazards. It made sense, Granger said, to "integrate" the proposal with the city's existing emergency services providers and have them use and monitor the equipment.

Perkins then noted that the ad hoc committee's previous discussion centered mostly on traffic monitoring. He found the discussion around security concerning. Perkins also said he found it "puzzling" that CityCenter would spend $100,000 on an initiative the city has already embarked on, and then not have access to that feed. Perkins noted grants the council had previously approved for the purpose of upgrading similar equipment across the city.

Granger, responding to Perkins' remarks on security, said she sees traffic as "an element of people feeling secure and for the monitoring of hazards." Such issues could affect pedestrians patronizing local businesses and their ability to safely use crosswalks, Granger noted.

Perkins, instead, described the proposal as "a precursor to surveillance."

Council Majority Leader Vinny DiGilio said CityCenter has a duty and responsibility to its constituents to provide "that additional layer of security." DiGilio said he supported the measure.

Council member Warren Levy, who chaired the ad hoc committee, said the donation will help replace 10 of 16 existing cameras that are currently malfunctioning. Levy disagreed with fellow council members who felt the system would constitute an invasion of privacy, noting monitoring systems, like Ring doorbells, are already widespread.

"This will be an excellent tool for those emergency service people that potentially could use it," Levy said.

Rotello, like Perkins, said he didn't understand why an organization would "install cameras at a tremendous cost, about 25 percent of their budget, that they could not look at." Rotello said the proposed system would be different from standard Ring doorbells, which he said are mounted at about chest-level height.

"These are cameras mounted 10, 20, 30 feet in the air," Rotello said, adding he suspected those cameras would be able to view in the windows of residents' apartments. "We're being asked to surveil our own citizens and we're being asked by CityCenter to do that," he said.

Stueck, who did not attend the meeting, told Hearst Connecticut Media the cameras wouldn't point into people's windows.

"That's certainly not our intention," he said. "We haven't gotten to the design phase. The cameras are going to be pointing down streets, and down alleys. They're not going to be pointed up at buildings. If that's the case, we'll act to correct it. No one is going to be watching these cameras at all time. The police will have the ability to bring up the camera footage."

Rotello said it was disingenuous to say the systems would be used for traffic and monitoring of hazardous incidents, like flooding.

"When really these cameras are going to be looking at you and me, every day, 24 hours a day. My philosophy is that discussions about decisions about surveillance... they should be made by the people who are being surveilled," Rotello said.

Moments later Rotello remarked that the potential for CityCenter to have access to the city's fiber optics network "is more than a slippery slope." However, city officials and CityCenter leaders have since denied that Rotello's fears would be realized, including whether the agency would be able to access the city's network.

Stueck used the examples of police potentially receiving reports of a large fight, or of an intoxicated individual who has fallen in the street. Officers would be able to verify those calls before responding.


Perkins questioned how necessary the system would be, noting that compared to other large cities, Danbury has a low crime rate, including in its downtown.

Stueck acknowledged the city's low crime levels. Still, he said, low-level crimes do occur. And downtown property owners have reported issues with individuals urinating, defecating, vomiting and fighting on private properties.

Stueck said occurrences, like individuals who have fallen unconscious onto private properties from intoxication, may seem minor, but "they're not acceptable."

Stueck said he owns three businesses downtown, which have experienced routine problems.

He said CityCenter's vision is to include with the cameras' signs alerting the public that areas are being monitored. To date, agency leaders have not discussed with public safety officials where the cameras will be installed and where signs will be installed.

Cassavechia, meanwhile, commended CityCenter staff for approaching the city to "collaborate with public safety officials and really expand hazard management." He described those conversations as multifaceted and said the city has "been looking for quite some time" at ways to expand its capacity to manage emergencies.

During the council's discussions, Levy said it would be unproductive to send the item back to an ad hoc committee for discussion. He said the decision by downtown merchants to invest in an improved monitoring system is their choice.

"The idea that we're going to peeking in windows on the second floor is really almost a scare tactic. That's not what this was for at all. The main focus is for traffic and other emergencies as they arise," Levy said.

Perkins following the meeting said he still has concerns about the cameras' purpose.

"There really should be an in-depth conversation about how those cameras will be used," Perkins said, questioning whether the cameras will be used to monitor the outdoor activities of minorities and unhoused individuals.

"All those questions are important and they really need to be discussed. We just didn't have an opportunity," Perkins said, later attributing the city's current low crime rates "to our strong community policing and engagement."

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