Councilors examine need for policy on electronic surveillance
Councilor Blake Dickinson said he learned about the “pervasive use of video surveillance by the town” from a recent story in the Jamestown Press.
(Town staff did not answer questions about the number of cameras in use or the associated costs, but the story did cite some information about a camera trained on the East Ferry woodpile pier and the recreation center.)
Personally, Dickinson said, he views the cameras as “very effective tools for safety.” He added the main purpose of mounting the cameras on buildings has been to protect property and people.
But when the councilors asked staff for the official policy on electronic surveillance, they learned Jamestown does not have one.
“It is very clear to me we have to weigh in on these issues,” Dickinson said.
He wants to show residents “activity is being managed” and the local government is providing oversight, particularly about who has access to the recorded video and how long the records should be saved.
In particular, Dickinson said, he had “very serious reservations” about the use of surveillance cameras by the Jamestown schools.
Cathy Kaiser, chairwoman of the School Committee, said if the School Department had received a request for information about the surveillance cameras, the administration would provide the cost of the cameras. However, it would not give camera locations for security reasons.
Dickinson replied he understood the security concern, but said without specific information, “It should be inferred the cameras are everywhere.”
As a parent, he has some concerns about the decision to collect data about the children.
“I do think there needs to be a level of oversight,” he said.
“We have to provide the cost,” Kaiser reiterated. “I do not believe we have to provide location and for a very good reason. If we do make public where the cameras are, we’re just saying to a shooter, ‘Come on in.’”
Dickinson said he wished he had not started the discussion in public, but disagreed with her opinion.
“The purpose is not to protect you from being shot by anyone,” he said. According to Dickinson, the cameras are “a forensic device” used to assist law enforcement after a crime has been committed.
“If the assumption is, cameras are everywhere, I would like to know somehow if that is being managed properly,” he said. “I’m going to ask my fellow town councilors if this is in our purview and if we have oversight.”
Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero said the council has a right to make a policy about cameras being operated by the municipal government. According to Ruggiero, the council can ask the schools to write a policy about surveillance on school property, but the School Committee would be free to comply or not. The Town Council cannot “compel” the school board, Ruggiero said.
“I’m sympathetic to what Blake is getting at,” said Mihaly. “I do think this calls for oversight from this body and the School Committee.”
Mihaly suggested Jamestown might borrow a solution from the U.S. Congress and create something similar to a “Washington intelligence oversight committee.” The members could include the town administrator, police chief, councilors and School Committee. One goal would be to assure the public the local government was balancing the need for security with respect for people’s privacy. Mihaly said the committee could determine if the surveillance was being used in the public’s best interest.
Councilor Mary Meagher suggested the first step should be to establish a policy for the town and “get our own house in order” now that the councilors know they have no control over the school cameras.
The schools can review the finished policy, she said. Meagher asked Dickinson if he was concerned because the schools were collecting data on young children.
Dickinson said his worry was about who could see the videos. He wanted to know about staff members who have keys to all the schoolrooms: can they access the videotapes?
“It’s going to sound like I’m picking on the janitors,” he said.
Council President Kristine Trocki asked police Chief Ed Mello for an opinion.
“I agree there needs to be policy,” Mello said. “I agree it is a forensic tool.”
However, Mello added cameras sometimes deter crime. He suggested balancing the public safety issues with the privacy concerns. Instead of thinking about the camera locations, he said the town should focus on managing surveillance and controlling who has access.
“I think that’s an important thing to regulate,” Meagher said.
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said any policy the councilors develop could be adapted to any other public entity, such as the School Department.
“I don’t see why, if the school committee is willing, they shouldn’t participate in this dialogue,” Mihaly said. “I would think it would be valuable.”
Kaiser said she was not sure why the councilors wanted to pursue the issue with the schools.
Kaiser said she was aware who has access to the surveillance records at the schools, and she was comfortable with the direction the school administration has taken. “I’m not sure I want to have that in a public policy,” Kaiser said.
Mihaly said the camera locations and the list of people who can access records would not be revealed in the policy. That level of detail would be pointless, he said.
“The School Committee would have no problem putting it into a policy who has access to information,” she said. “That’s a very easy step to take.”
She also said the schools will be “happy to participate” in the policy discussion with the councilors, but added the School Department already has “pretty clear ideas on what we want the policy to say at our end.”
Dickinson said there were privacy issues, however. If there were a camera outside of Town Hall, for example, he would want some control over where the camera could pan and zoom. It shouldn’t be able to see inside houses across the street, he said.
“I don’t want to say what’s really bugging me,” he said.
“There are no cameras in the bathrooms,” Kaiser said, anticipating his next question.
According to Dickinson, some schools have put cameras in washrooms. He said his objective is to make sure someone is reviewing the surveillance practices and making sure the policies are not being violated.
“I asked originally about policy,” he said. “No one knows what it is or whether there is one.”
Given the fact Dickinson had already encountered issues he does not want to state in public, Kaiser said, would an executive session be appropriate? Under the open meetings law, security is one of the reasons a closed-door session would be allowed.
Trocki asked Ruggiero for an opinion, and he confirmed Kaiser’s assessment.
The council agreed to meet behind closed doors Aug. 5 with members of the School Committee to discuss privacy and security issues related to electronic surveillance. Finance Director Tina Collins, who also heads information technology for the town, was also invited to attend.
“I assume other towns have policies?” Trocki said, turning to Keiser, who replied there were such policies and he could provide them to the council.
“We don’t want to be a town without a policy,” she added.