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Video Cameras as a Force Multiplier for Local Police: A Public-Private Partnership that Works

January 13, 2015

The cities of Baltimore, New York and Chicago have demonstrated the effect that city-owned video cameras can have on crime, effective law enforcement and officer safety. That said, creating a public-private partnership where privately-owned video cameras are accessible by the police can exponentially increase the reach of such a system without an increase in cost.  Recent legal decisions impact how such a system can best be implemented and utilized to enhance public safety while protecting the privacy rights of individuals as required under the Fourth Amendment.
In our legal work advising cities and police departments from Pennsylvania to New Mexico on video camera systems, we have created public-private partnerships which coordinate both public and private video cameras to enhance public safety.  At the same time, we have put in place legal protections to ensure privacy rights are respected.  A Code of Conduct for all Police officers involved in video camera operations includes a requirement that public video cameras may not track individuals based on a classification protected by law or for any reason other than in connection with a legitimate Police Department purpose.  Further, such Police officers execute a non-Disclosure  Agreement assuring that the identity of individuals observed or information obtained will not be disclosed unless pursuant to a potential or actual Police investigation.  For private businesses wishing to share video footage with the Police Department, a Memorandum of Understanding must be in place stating that any shared footage is the property of the business unless recorded by the Police Department in connection with a legitimate Police Department purpose.  No footage obtained by the Police Department may be shared with other governmental agencies unless a Video Sharing Agreement is in place with such agency certifying that the shared footage will only be used for the limited purposes for which it was obtained by the Police Department.
A recent legal decision draws into question how long a publicly-owned video camera may be focused on the public view of a residence without triggering a violation of the individual’s right of privacy.  In December 2014, the Eastern District of Washington ruled in United State v. Vargas that six weeks of the Police continually recording the front yard of an individual’s house violated the Fourth Amendment.  This holding is not inconsistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U. S. v. Jones (132 S. Ct. 945, 2012), which held that the Police use of a GPS to track a car for 28 days without a warrant was an unconstitutional search, violating the Katz “reasonable expectation of privacy” test.  The legally appropriate targeting of publicly-owned video cameras in public areas must be addressed to ensure that these powerful public-private partnerships which enhance public safety  also honor an individual’s right to privacy.
Written by Alan F. Wohlstetter, Esq., Chair, Infrastructure Practice Group

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