LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 25, 2017) – Last week, We See You Watching Lexington outreach director Clay Davis had a phone conversation with Lexington Urban County Councilmember Fred Brown. Brown spearheaded efforts to place surveillance cameras in Lexington parks. From the conversation, it became clear Brown has very limited understanding of the issues surrounding government surveillance. The following is Clay’s recap of the conversation.
Lexington-Fayette County Urban County Councilmember Fred Brown likes to use warm, fuzzy words to describe his new initiative to trample upon the privacy of Lexington’s citizens.
“I don’t like to call it a surveillance camera. It’s just kind of a safety camera,” said Councilmember Brown referencing the recently installed, $30,000 surveillance system at Berry Hill Skate Park.
Brown began pushing for surveillance cameras in Lexington parks last year, with little to no effort to acquire community buy-in on the project. Residents who live in Brown’s District 8 neighborhoods were not notified prior to the installation of the spypole. Additionally, no effort was made to educate the community about the operational nature of the equipment or the perceived necessity to put it to use.
During initial discussion of the program, Department of Safety administrative officer Dean Marcum emphasized to the council the importance of obtaining community support.
“A big thing, in my opinion, is having neighborhood meetings and getting community buy-in. That’s critical in my view. We want the community on board with these. I think that’s a big part of it,” Marcum said during a November 2016 committee meeting on the subject.
Apparently, Marcum’s input fell upon deaf ears. Not one neighborhood meeting was held.
Councilmember Brown seemed surprised that people don’t want spy cameras in their backyards. I asked about the lack of effort to obtain community support.
We took that through committee, I mean, it wasn’t done behind the scenes or overnight or anything like that. There is no neighborhood association over there, so it’s very hard to reach out to that particular area because of that. You know, after we talked about it, I think it was in the newspaper, too, but anyway, we put it on our email and we reached out through that venue, which is not all-inclusive, but the idea that, well, I didn’t figure that it was going to be intrusive to the extent that I think you all look at it,” he said.
Brown was also asked why he had no difficulty in notifying his constituents whenever he was up for re-election, but found it impossible to notify the residents of District 8 about his legacy surveillance program.
“Well, at that time you’re out going door to door,” Brown said, implying that his re-election efforts were more worthy of personal notification than that of full and transparent disclosure regarding a pilot program many people find troubling.
During his most recent run for office, Councilmember Brown ran on a platform that was rooted in public safety, implying that his district had needs in this regard due to its ‘diversity.’ After speaking with him, it is clear that his core intentions are to make Berry Hill Park a safer place.
The intention was to make that park safer than it has been from all the information that we’ve gotten in the past from police reports and from drug activity. We have some other parks where we have problems. All of this is just a monitoring and it’s like I said, it’s just a tape of activity in that park. You know that some people think that we are going to go farther and farther (with surveillance) but I wouldn’t support anything in any addition to that. I don’t want to be observed by cameras 24/7 by any means. I certainly wouldn’t want that camera looking into my place.”
Being new to the world of government surveillance, Brown seems rather naïve. He doesn’t appear to grasp the realities experienced by other communities that have permitted these types of technologies to proliferate without rigid guidelines for transparency and oversight.
Surveillance goes far beyond park cameras. For example, police in some communities have access to “stingray devices.” More generally known as cell site simulators, these devices essentially spoof cell phone towers, tricking any device within range into connecting to the stingray instead of the tower, allowing law enforcement to sweep up communications content, as well as locate and track the person in possession of a specific phone or other electronic device. Law enforcement agencies in some cities also use surveillance drones, cameras hidden in street lights, and automatic license plate readers that allow police to track the movement of vehicles. This often happens in secret, without warrants, or even basic oversight.
Once these surveillance devices are turned on, there is tremendous potential for abuse. Ethnic and minority communities are often wrongfully targeted. People labeled as political or ideological adversaries are surveilled and harmful data is compiled. There are even numerous accounts of police officers turning these powerful devices against people for personal reasons.
Even if we take Councilmember Brown at his word and trust he has no intentions of expanding the surveillance state in Lexington, let’s not forget Brown will not be serving Lexington as a Councilmember much longer. If we do not act now to thwart potential abuse of these invasive technologies, what is to stop future officials from misusing surveillance equipment in the future?
Brown could leave us with a dangerous and irresponsible legacy if he simply turns these devices on and then rides off into the sunset without establishing a framework for proper oversight and transparency.
And can we even trust Brown at his word?
This pilot program cost the city $30,000. When asked if establishing surveillance in larger city parks, such as Jacobson Park or Masterson Station, would cost in excess of $150,000 per property, Brown responded, “Well, I don’t envision that happening, but it may.”
Brown revealed lack of knowledge about surveillance technologies when asked if he knew what stingrays were.
Stingray? No, no. I’m not really up on that. I don’t think it was mentioned in any of our discussions. I don’t know everything technology-wise or even what’s going on in the government. We have people who will feed us information back if we ask for it.”
Though Lexington claims it does not own or operate cell site simulators, it is only natural to expect police will want to acquire these gadgets in the near future. Other communities that have allowed basic surveillance to exist were unpleasantly surprised when stingray capabilities were secretly added to the local law enforcement’s array of high tech gadgets and gizmos. Since the LFUCG Council is the administrative body that is to provide oversight for surveillance technologies, and it is that very body that has authorized the use of surveillance in our community, is it not reasonable to expect a certain level of knowledge about the operational capabilities of these potentially invasive devices?
The Council’s clear lack of knowledge about the subject greatly diminishes public confidence in their ability to provide proper oversight and governance to these surveillance programs. Clearly, there is an urgent need for a local ordinance that addresses these issues.
In addition to providing oversight, the community also has an expectation for the Council to operate in a financially responsible manner with regard to public safety.
That was a $30,000 project. I know that sounds pretty expensive, but that was the cheapest way to go rather than to have the police out there 24/7,” Brown said.
Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard informed the Council that his current budget had allocated overtime funding that would allow officers to increase their patrol presence at Berry Hill Skate Park. These are funds that are currently on the books and are not an additional line item like the pilot spypole program. Additionally, surveillance cameras can only observe criminal activity. They cannot make a stop or an arrest. Typically, surveillance cameras only serve to push crime away from the observed area and into other surrounding areas.
We See You Watching Lexington, a grassroots coalition of concerned citizens, has provided Councilmember Brown with a sample ordinance that they support as a vehicle to provide the needed accountability and oversight for Lexington’s new surveillance program. It is their hope that Councilmember Brown would review the ordinance, sponsor it and bring it before the Council. I asked Brown if he’d read it.
No, because I don’t look at those proposed ordinances. I’m not sure where you’re coming from because it’s not in any committee form and it’s not anyplace where I could propose an ordinance. It was passed as a general pilot program and we wanted to see how it would work.”
In fact, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t even understand what we’re proposing.
Not being a member of the council, this writer may not know all of the nuances regarding what it takes to introduce an ordinance to the council, but one can imagine the process isn’t much different than the one Fred Brown used to authorize a spypole in the Berry Hill/Buckhorn neighborhood. He felt there was a need for the program and he introduced it. It went to committee and it was worked into something that could be presented to the council. The council discussed it and took a vote. If Councilmember Brown genuinely had empathy for the concerns of the community, he could introduce an accountability and oversight ordinance just as easily as he introduced the program that caused these concerns to begin with.
His statement that the ordinance was not presented in committee form is an exercise in absurdity. His outright refusal to read it is an alarming dismissal of the constituency that elected him. If you would like to review the ordinance that Fred Brown refuses to read, you may do so by clicking HERE.
As enacted, Lexington’s pilot surveillance program has been slated to last for one year, after which, gathered data will be reviewed and further public input will be sought out. That time frame places the next review to be sometime in June or July of 2018. Councilmember Brown made it clear that he has no interest in looking at any proposed ordinance until the conclusion of the pilot program. Furthermore, he was unable to provide a definitive timeline with which he expects any written policies, ordinances or laws regarding the acquisition and operation of surveillance cameras to be put into effect.
When it comes back around in a year’s time, we’ll look at it and try to get some input from the public. I’ll keep people informed and let people know through our email system. I think there are going to be a lot more people involved. But doing an ordinance, cart blanche on that, is usually not the approach you take,” said Brown. “I think that after we look at this pilot program, that that would be the time that we might need to put some teeth in it or take it down.”
By the time this pilot program concludes, Councilmember Brown, it is probably safe to say that a lot more people will, indeed, be involved. There are a growing number of residents who are ready to put some teeth into your surveillance program now and an equal number who want to take it down altogether. We will not allow you to turn these devices on and ride off into the sunset without providing the accountability and oversight that our fair city deserves.
The watchers must be watched.