By: Mike Maharrey
After over two-and-a-half years of legal wrangling, the lawsuit filed against me by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government is over and I am going to reveal what I know about the Lexington Police Department’s super-secret cameras.
After several months of consideration, I have decided not to continue fighting LFUCG in court.
This experience has reiterated what I’ve been saying for years – we can’t trust government agencies to acquire and operate invasive surveillance technology without oversight and transparency. They hide it for a reason. They lie about it for a reason. As Patrick Henry warned:
“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them. The most iniquitous plots may be carried on against their liberty and happiness.”
In April, Fayette Circuit Court Judge Lucy VanMeter ruled that the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government could withhold documents relating to “mobile surveillance cameras” from public scrutiny. In a nutshell, she bought the city’s argument that revealing information about the cameras would create an undue burden on the city and could jeopardize officer safety.
Quite frankly, I think VanMeter’s reasoning was sloppy, and I’m pretty confident we could get her ruling overturned on appeal. But I think now is the time to end the legal fight. It’s no longer necessary.
The case has proved the point I was trying to make all along — Lexington desperately needs transparency and oversight for its surveillance programs.
Thanks to the LPD’s poor redacting skills, I have known the nature of three of the super-secret cameras since the beginning. The police department gave me a number of heavily redacted documents in response to my initial open records request. They redacted several of these using a magic marker, and I was able to read through the redactions.
According to one set of documents, the Lexington Police Department purchased a “covert utility box camera” in 2014. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a hidden camera disguised to look like a standard utility box.
An email about the new camera referenced two “street light cameras” already owned by the LPD. The email, written by then Lt. Scott Blakely of the Special Investigations Section, said that the utility box application “will provide us with a different application where street lights are not installed.”
I find the fact that the police department secretly installs cameras in street lights extremely troubling. We have no idea when or how they use this technology. We have no idea what privacy protections they have in place. We don’t know how they handle the data they gather, how long they retain it, and how they handle incidentally collected footage unrelated to the investigation. We don’t even know if they require warrants. In fact, some of the testimony during my court case indicates they do not.
The police department also purchased high-resolution Panasonic dome cameras in 2013. They appear to be mounted cameras, and not mobile, but it’s unclear where they were deployed or how they are used.
Documents released by the Lexington Police Department during legal proceedings reveal lax surveillance policies that could be interpreted to allow surveillance virtually anyplace at any time.
An LPD document titled GO 1975-04 D establishes guidelines for police department technical surveillance. According to the document, Lexington police can conduct surveillance “when a legitimate and reasonable suspicion exists to believe an individual or organization is engaged in, is about to engage in or has the propensity to engage in illegal activity, or to believe an event may provoke community disorder, or for special event security concerns.”
These are extremely subjective criteria, particularly the ability to spy on people with a “propensity” to engage in illegal activities. What exactly does this mean? Minorities? People with particular political views? People who live in a “bad neighborhood?” This criterion could justify surveillance in virtually any situation.
Additionally, the policy for event surveillance is ripe for abuse and opens the door to target political activities or other events in a discriminatory way. This lends credence to unconfirmed rumors we’ve heard about the LPD surveilling the Lexington Roots and Heritage Festival.
The document also allows for surveillance to, “Determine whether there is reasonable suspicion to believe a crime will, has, or may occur,” and, “Obtain probable cause for obtaining search warrants.”
This indicates that the LPD is not obtaining warrants to deploy surveillance. In fact, the department apparently uses warrantless surveillance to gather evidence in order to obtain warrants.
Despite the information I was able to glean from redacted documents, the extent of the LPD’s surveillance programs remains unclear. We know nothing about the other cameras the department owns or operates, or if the city has purchased other surveillance technology since I made my initial records request three years ago.
All of this underscores the need for policies establishing oversight and transparency for all Lexington Police Department surveillance technologies.
Government agencies should have a written plan in place directing and limiting the use of surveillance technology before they acquire or use it. These plans should outline the costs and benefits of the technology, and should include specific policies directing when and under what circumstances it can be deployed, policies on the sharing and retention of data, policies outlining how information incidentally collected on innocent third parties will be handled, and policies to ensure surveillance isn’t directed at people with certain political views or minority communities in a discriminatory way. Furthermore, the plan should be subject to public scrutiny and council approval at a public meeting – again – before the agency acquires or begins using this technology.
To this end, a local coalition I formed called We See You Watching Lexington proposes a local ordinance that would establish this kind of oversight and transparency. The language was drafted by lawyers at the ACLU with input from other organizations concerned about privacy in this era of rapidly advancing technology. You can download the model language HERE.