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05/30/2023 12:29 PM

OS Police Chief Clarifies Passive Recording Use


Following a report from CTInsider that some police union members had concerns about the use of body cameras by the Old Saybrook Police Department (OSPD), Police Chief Michael Spera clarified how the cameras are used.

On April 11, published a story by Meghan Friedmann that noted concerns from the police union about the use of passive recording from a body camera that was used as part of an investigation into a former OSPD officer.

The issue stems from the firing of former Old Saybrook police officer Josh Zarbo. Zarbo was fired in February after he was accused of misusing department equipment to learn a woman’s name so he could follow her on Instagram. Misuse of the system is punishable by criminal charges, and following an investigation, Zarbo was charged with computer crimes in the third degree, a felony to which he has pleaded not guilty, according to the state judicial website.

As part of that investigation, the OSPD accessed the passive recording of the body camera – in other words, footage taken from when the officer had not activated the camera.

An officer’s body cameras can be switched on to record audio as well as video. However, even if the record button has not been pressed the camera is still on and recording in video only – passive mode.

That act concerned Ron Suraci, the regional director of the union that represents OSPD, who was worried about when exactly the camera was recording.

“Our members were never notified by the chief that their cameras were recording them for their entire shift … in bathroom stalls, bathrooms, locker rooms, lunch rooms, and other places,” Suraci told CTInsider.

Complicating matters, two department members anonymously told CTInsider that they were unaware the department could access the passive footage and only learned of that fact after Zarbo was charged.

At a police commission meeting on April 24, Old Saybrook Police Chief Michael Spera spent several minutes during the meeting covering the use of the camera.

Spera said that when officers return from a shift and write a report about an incident, they watch back the body camera footage. That footage shows a full minute of the passive recording prior to when the camera is activated.

“There is absolutely, positively no way, a sworn law enforcement officer is sitting watching things happen in the world one minute prior to them pushing the button and not knowing that it’s passively recording because that’s the only possible way that that footage can be available,” Spera said during the meeting.

During the meeting, Spera also told the commission about a police shooting involving an officer from the Norwich Police Department that occurred in October 2021. A March 2023 Inspector General report showed the officer had acted correctly in the shooting, and as part of the report, there is a link to the officer’s body camera footage.

Spera said that the Norwich Police Department uses the same camera system as OSPD and is represented by the same union as OSPD. “When the officer who was involved in the shooting was giving his statement to the inspector general’s office, with his union attorney by his side, he said that things were happening so fast that he never had time to activate his body-worn camera,” Spera explained.

However, the link to the video that is in the report, which the department used as evidence the officer was in the right, was obtained using the passive recording Spera pointed out.

“Same system, similar policy, same union. Why is it an issue here when we used the passive recording to prove that someone who was arrested for a felony was making false statements?” Spera rhetorically asked the commission.

Furthermore, Spera said that the department had Motorola do an independent audit of the system which showed that OSPD had downloaded passive recordings only twice: once from Zarbo and once from Zarbo’s partner as part of its investigation.

Spera called the claims put forth in the article that the camera footage was being misused “ridiculous.”

Specifically, when it came to the case against Zarbo, Spera said that police commission member Carol Manning pointed out that Zarbo claimed he wasn’t aware his camera could passively record, yet he was repeatedly covering his camera while texting during his incident.

As for concerns about the camera recording an officer in intimate moments, Spera said that policy dictates that they turn off their camera when going to the bathroom.

On April 25, the Middlesex County State’s Attorney’s Office released a statement that said no criminal charges would be filed concerning the use of body camera footage in Old Saybrook.