New Somerville Police Cameras Raise Questions about Civil Liberties

somerville camera
Somerville Police Chief Thomas Pasquarello. Photo courtesy of SomervillePatch reporter Chris Orchard.

By Gina Curreri
BU News Service

SOMERVILLE _ Worried about residents’ civil liberties, some aldermen are questioning the Somerville Police Department’s use of new video cameras which mount to light posts or police cars within minutes.

At the Feb. 14 Board of Aldermen meeting, the police chief was expected to present guidelines that the board requested for use of the cameras, and the board would then decide whether to approve them.

“I think we have to be really conscientious here about people’s First Amendment rights to protest, to express their point of view,” said Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz during the last full Board of Aldermen meeting a few weeks ago. The board during that meeting decided to ask police to write guidelines.

“I think if a member of the police department were to set up a quick-deploy camera at a protest, for example, I think that could make people shy away, feel uncomfortable,” Gewirtz said.

No citizens have raised complaints about the cameras, but they also may not be aware of their existence, according to aldermen. The use of similar cameras by the Boston Police Department stirred controversy in recent years.

The cameras first came to the aldermen’s attention at a Jan. 10 meeting when they were told about a letter from Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone asking the board to accept the cameras. The aldermen are required to accept or deny all grants and gifts.

The Somerville Police had received two of the cameras, known as quick-deploy video cameras, as a gift from the Boston Office of Emergency Management. The cameras are similar to the permanent ones in Davis Square, but can be easily mounted to buildings and light posts to monitor large outdoor city events, public gatherings or a place where a crime might take place.

Although many police forces use surveillance cameras to stop crime, these cameras raise special concerns because they could be positioned in places residents might not be expecting a camera, such as a concert or protest in a public green space, one alderman said.

During a board subcommittee meeting on public safety (Feb. 6), Somerville Police Chief Thomas Pasquarello reassured aldermen that the new cameras would not be used for spying or other intelligence purposes that heighten concerns about citizens’ civil liberties.  The recordings would only be kept 14 days, as is custom with all police department security cameras, the chief said.

In 2011, because of concerns about surveillance, the ACLU of Massachusetts sued the Boston Police Department to obtain files on peaceful protesters. They won and were handed documents and video surveillance tapes.

In October 2012, after reviewing the material, the ACLU then asked Boston police to stop monitoring peaceful demonstrations. In its October report, the ACLU said the Boston Police Department has used the Boston Homeland Security’s quick-deploy cameras in the past to monitor anti-war groups’ peaceful demonstrations and to spy on lawful activity to create what they called intelligence reports to gather information. However, in an October Boston Globe article, Boston Police said they do not monitor demonstrations and events without specific information on suspected criminal activity.

Using cameras for monitoring peaceful demonstrations is problematic, says Kade Crockford, director of technology for the Liberty Project with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts

“I would encourage the Somerville (aldermen) to ask the chief of police to put in writing that the cameras will not be used for any spying on political activity,” Crockford said.

The US Supreme Court has ruled that people have no objective expectation to privacy on public streets, Crockford added.  But there is a difference between stomping on civil liberties and using surveillance lawfully to stop crime, she said.

Despite some concerns, Somerville aldermen said they believed that once the city had clearer policies, the cameras could be vital crime-fighting tools.

The cameras, for example, could have aided police at the Somerville Holiday Inn last month, said Alderman at Large Bruce Desmond. The mayor requested that the police take a close look at the hotel after a fight involving a dozen women broke out in December.

“There’s probably 13 situations they could be used for, but it will be all according to the policy,” said Alderman at Large John Connolly.

The cameras could provide added security at events and aid in hostage situations or in monitoring traffic during large storms, Connolly said.

Gewirtz said although the aldermen trust the police department it would be best for the aldermen to “cover all their bases” and create rules for the cameras’ usage, especially if a new chief were to take over.

“The concern I have is that once we accept the cameras, we don’t have control over what happens next,” she said.

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