The sudden appearance of cameras at Berry Hill Skate Park, and the Lexington Police Department’s response to an open records request, indicate that government agencies in Fayette County operate surveillance programs with little oversight or public accountability.
Considering the intrusive nature of modern surveillance technology, the very real threat to basic privacy rights inherent in its use, and the potential for abuse, the city needs to put measures in place – now – before real problems arise.
The surveillance state continues to expand at breakneck speed with more and more local law enforcement agencies obtaining high-tech spy gear such as stingray devices, automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), sophisticated cameras and drones.
A proposed local ordinance takes the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into a broader national surveillance state.
This proposed legislation would require the LPD and other government agencies to get approval from the city council before obtaining any type of surveillance technology.
The process outlined by the ordinance requires government agencies to develop a detailed surveillance impact report and use policy for every technology before they acquired or use it. It mandates full public disclosure with an opportunity for the community to weigh in before the council makes its decision. This would create an environment of transparency and accountability, and would enable the community to weigh in on the decision.
The ordinance also includes provisions requiring approval for the continued use of existing technology. Additionally, it features reporting requirements for any approved surveillance gear and a publicly available analysis of the full cost of the technology.
Last fall, a transpartisan coalition of organizations, including the ACLU and the Tenth Amendment Center, launched the Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) initiative. To date, CCOPS-focused legislative efforts have commenced in 19 geographically and politically diverse cities, along with two states.
We call upon the Lexington Fayette County Urban County Council to join this effort.
This common-sense piece of legislation strikes a fair balance between the needs of law enforcement and the privacy rights of Lexingtonians. It will allow the LPD and Department of Public Safety to utilize surveillance technology as necessary to fight crime, while maintaining an environment of transparency and accountability.
Local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, many law enforcement agencies can obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight – sometimes in complete secrecy. The federal government often provides grants and other funding sources for this spy-gear, meaning local governments can keep their purchase “off the books.” Members of the community, and even elected officials, often don’t know their police departments possess technology capable of sweeping up electronic data, phone calls and location information.
In some cases, the feds even require law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements, wrapping surveillance programs in an even darker shroud of secrecy. We know for a fact the FBI required the Baltimore Police Department to sign such an agreement when it obtained stingray technology. This policy of nondisclosure even extends to the courtroom, with the feds actually instructing prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions about the department’s stingray device on the stand during a trial, citing a federal nondisclosure agreement.
As privacysos.org put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”
Without definitive parameters in place, it is almost certain that government agencies in Lexington will get swept into the surveillance state. The council should take action now to ensure this doesn’t happen.
If you live in Lexington, contact your council member, as well as the three “at-large” members. Firmly by politely urge them to introduce and support the CCOPS ordinance. The most effective strategy is a phone call followed up by an email.
You can find contact information for all council members HERE.
Download the CCOPS model language HERE.