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Slack the police? Hartford eyes messaging platform to reduce violent crime

Hartford Police Chief Jason Thody speaks to a group of protestors from The Self-Defense Brigade and Black Lives Matter at the main office of the Hartford Police Department on January 28, 2023 following the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police. Hartford officials plan to use federal funding to implement the instant messaging app Slack and facilitate communication between communities and the police to help combat crime.
Tyler Russell
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Connecticut Public
Hartford Police Chief Jason Thody speaks to a group of protesters from the Self-Defense Brigade and Black Lives Matter at the main office of the Hartford Police Department on Jan. 28, 2023, after the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police in Memphis, Tennessee. Hartford officials plan to use federal funding to implement the instant messaging app Slack to facilitate communication between communities and the police to help combat crime.

Hartford officials have allocated more than $400,000 of a $2M gun violence grant to create Slack channels to help fight crime.

Hartford is getting $2 million in federal funding from the Department of Justice to reduce violence in the community, and Mayor Luke Bronin is using nearly a quarter of that money to virtually connect residents with the police department.

According to a cost breakdown The Accountability Project received from the mayor’s office, city officials plan to use an estimated $405,000 to pay for access to an enterprise version of Slack for the next three years.

Slack is an instant messaging platform best known for helping companies facilitate interoffice communication, though its user base has expanded in recent years to include other types of organizations.

The idea in Hartford is to replicate Nextdoor and Facebook groups where neighbors can come together and communicate with the police.

For Brian Sullivan, a Hartford native, this is a surprising approach to reduce violence in the community. He says his experience on the streets of Hartford has shown him what works to combat crime.

“I became involved in one of the most violent street gangs on the East Coast, which at the time was the Solidos,” Sullivan said. “From that, everything escalated, and I was just really part of the chaos that plagued Hartford and surrounding cities.”

Coordinator Brian Sullivan is always on the look out for those that could benefit from the programs offered at the the Goodwin University Community Manufacturing Training Center on Park St, in Hartford, Connecticut January 19, 2023.
Joe Amon
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Connecticut Public
Coordinator Brian Sullivan is always on the lookout for those who could benefit from the programs offered at the the Goodwin University Community Manufacturing Training Center on Park Street in Hartford, Jan. 19, 2023.

Sullivan has since turned his life around. He was released from prison a few years ago, and now he’s the site coordinator at one of Goodwin University’s manufacturing training centers in the city.

“They [overdose] out here all the time; stabbings, shootings. The first week we opened, four people got killed on Park Street,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s goal is to encourage people living a life of crime and violence to get off the streets and to help them learn a trade. He says providing people with opportunities is key to preventing violence.

For the mayor, Slack presents an innovative way for residents to communicate about what they see in the community. As far as his office knows, this is the first time a police department has used Slack as an outreach tool. Hartford will also use money from the federal grant to fund a range of other initiatives, including hiring case managers to work with at-risk individuals.

Mayor Luke Bronin speaking on preventing gun violence in his office at Hartford City Hall in downtown Hartford, Connecticut January 26, 2023.
Joe Amon
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Connecticut Public
Mayor Luke Bronin speaks on preventing gun violence from his office at City Hall in downtown Hartford, Conn., Jan. 26, 2023.

“Things like a Slack channel are meant to help enable communication in real time, and sometimes anonymous communication between our community and our police force, so that information can be shared,” Bronin said.

A spokesman for the Hartford Police Department declined to comment on its plans for the service. At a public meeting in December, police explained that Slack would allow residents to communicate with them at any time instead of waiting for public meetings.

“In that private channel with your residents, anybody can sign up who lives in that area,” Sgt. Chris Mastroianni said. “We will connect your fire department on there, but the big one would be obviously your police.”

Grant money will also fund overtime pay for police violent crimes units, ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology and a new camera partnership program. The camera system is modeled after one in Atlanta, where police can access footage from cameras used by local businesses to solve crimes.

The city's grant proposal originally included funding to distribute Ring video doorbell cameras and to install more city-owned surveillance cameras on poles. It will instead use the money to fund its camera partnership with local businesses at an estimated cost of $75,000 a year, according to a spokesman for the city.

This isn’t the first time Hartford has used Slack for policing. HPD currently uses Slack to communicate internally, and officers say it’s been successful.

Slack wrote a blog post about HPD using the platform, but it was removed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

A Slack representative declined to comment on Hartford's plan to use its software to strengthen public safety.

Kerri Raissian leads UConn’s Center for Advancing Research, Methods, and Scholarship in Gun Injury Prevention. She said communication platforms such as Slack are useful, but they should be paired with violence prevention strategies.

In this photo illustration the Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, LinkedIn and Slack app and logos seen displayed on a smartphone.
SOPA Images/LightRocket
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Getty Images
This photo illustration shows the app logos for WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn and Slack on a smartphone.

“I think that these strategies can be both prevention and response at the same time,” Raissian said. “We are not in a place where we just get to think in the space of prevention, because unfortunately, there are too many gun fatalities in our cities.”

In 2022, there were 39 homicides in Hartford — the most the city has seen in nearly two decades.

Over the last five years, about two-thirds of gun violence victims in Hartford were Black, and about one-third were Hispanic, according to records provided by the city. A majority of them were between the ages of 18 and 29.

“We see these young guys out here who feel they have no hope,” said Sullivan, the Goodwin University site coordinator. “Maybe they got felonies on their record. Maybe they come from broken homes, dysfunctional homes. As we get them here, we start to give them some hope.”

Coordinator Brian Sullivan has known violence from personal experience, the loss of freedom. The programs offered at the Goodwin University Community Manufacturing Training Center offers others an opportunity to turn from violence and the streets. To learn a trade on Park St, in Hartford, Connecticut January 19, 2023.
Joe Amon
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Connecticut Public
Brian Sullivan, site coordinator for Goodwin University's manufacturing training center on Park Street in Hartford, says he has known violence from personal experience. The school's training program offers others an opportunity to learn a trade and turn away from crime.

The DOJ press release, about the $100 million in awards, stated that research shows that social factors, including a lack of economic opportunities, are associated with firearm-related homicide rates.

That’s why Sullivan wants to train at-risk individuals in manufacturing so that they can pursue a career.

“It takes away from them wanting to devote time trying to make $100 selling two bundles of dope or wanting to shoot a guy because you just had an argument,” Sullivan said.

Bria Lloyd joined Connecticut Public as an investigative reporter for The Accountability Project in November 2022. She’s also the co-host of the station’s limited series podcast, 'In Absentia'.
Jim Haddadin is an editor for The Accountability Project, Connecticut Public's investigative reporting team. He was previously an investigative producer at NBC Boston, and wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Walter Smith Randolph is Connecticut Public’s Investigative Editor. In 2021, Walter launched The Accountability Project, CT Public’s investigative reporting initiative. Since then, the team’s reporting has led to policy changes across the state. Additionally, The Accountability Project’s work has been honored with a National Edward R. Murrow award from RTDNA, two regional Murrow awards, a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists, three regional EMMY nominations and a dozen CT SPJ awards.

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