Lexington Park Surveillance Raises Issues of Transparency and Oversight

The following op-ed appeared in the July issue of the Kentucky Gazette

The sudden appearance of cameras in a Lexington park raises broader concerns about the unregulated and secretive spread of surveillance technology in communities throughout the commonwealth.

The array of four cameras sit perched on a pole overlooking the Berry Hill Skate Park, giving the watchers a 360 degree view of the area.

Some of us have dubbed it the Lexington spy-pole.

Councilmember Fred Brown (Dist. 8) spearheaded the effort to place surveillance cameras in Fayette County parks, starting with a pilot project. The Lexington Fayette Urban County Council approved the $30,000 surveillance system for Berry Hill earlier this year with no public input.

During discussions about the cameras, Lexington Department of Public Safety administrative officer Dean Marcum emphasized the importance of neighborhood buy-in. But no notice was given to the community. There were no community meetings. The cameras just appeared one day. One resident who uses the park regularly said workers installing the pole told him it was for lights.

The appearance of these cameras raises much bigger questions. What other surveillance programs does Lexington run? What policies guide surveillance? How do government agencies address privacy concerns? How do they handle data storage and sharing?

Public records requests to the Lexington Police Department answered few of these questions. In fact, what the department wouldn’t say revealed far more than what it did.

We did learn that the LPD has 29 mobile surveillance cameras “available for a variety of video surveillance operations.” The department deploys these cameras “as needed in support of active investigations.” But the LPD would not release the policies governing the use of these cameras, nor would they provide purchase orders, grant applications, federal program applications, purchase receipts, training manuals, or written policies relating to the acquisition or use of surveillance technologies more generally. The department hid these records behind a statute exempting information that could be related to fighting terrorism from open records requirements.

This lack of transparency is typical. Big Brother doesn’t like us watching him watch us. Police and other government agencies across the country wrap surveillance programs in a veil of secrecy, and they often operate them with virtually no accountability.

Surveillance technology has a legitimate role in maintaining public safety, but without oversight, government spying can turn into an Orwellian nightmare.

Police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. State and local law enforcement agencies often obtain these expensive spy gadgets through federal grants and other funding sources that remain “off the books.” In other words, they can purchase high-tech surveillance equipment without any local government or public oversight. In fact, government officials may not even know police have obtained the equipment.

Stories chronicling government abuse of surveillance technologies have proliferated across the country over the last few years. There have been numerous reports of police using cell site simulators to track electronic devices and listen to conversations without a warrant, of the creation of databases filled with location information gleaned from automatic license plate readers, and of police using complex software to profile people through social media accounts.

State and local governments across Kentucky need to address the issue of surveillance before it gets out of hand. Surveillance programs operated by the Kentucky State Police and local law enforcement agencies should be transparent and accountable.

A broad coalition of organizations concerned about privacy launched efforts last fall to address surveillance at the local level. Through the Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) initiative, local government officials in multiple cities announced plans to launch legislative efforts to pass ordinances that will take the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into a broader national surveillance state. Organizations as diverse as the ACLU, CAIR and the Tenth Amendment Center support this initiative.

It’s imperative that cities and counties across Kentucky join the effort.

The CCOPS local ordinance requires all government agencies to develop detailed surveillance plans for every technology they acquire and operate. These plans must include provisions outlining how the agency will protect privacy rights, limit data retention and sharing, and ensure minority communities aren’t unfairly targeted. Under the proposed law, the local governing body overseeing the agency must approve the plan after a public meeting before the agency can acquire or use the surveillance technology.

Kentuckians have a right to know how their government is watching them, and law enforcement agencies should not operate surveillance programs with the potential to violate fundamental privacy rights with no oversight. Hiding surveillance programs behind a veil of secrecy is unacceptable. Passage of the CCOPS ordinance in cities and counties across the Commonwealth will take a step toward transparency and accountability without hindering law enforcement’s ability to protect their communities.

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