I have been meaning to write about our public surveillance camera network since your editorial, titled “Has Camera Use Finally Gone Too Far?”, was published on February 7.
The skeptical question asked about the usefulness of the camera system – “And seriously, how effective are these cameras going to be for catching violent felons?”, deserves an answer.
My answer is that they have been remarkably effective in providing useful leads and solving crimes in countless cases.
Ask the man who was recorded in high definition as he shot at a passing car, striking the driver in the leg. Three police officers identified him from that footage and he is now serving a 16-year prison sentence for the crime.
Or the bank robber who was recorded changing his clothes directly beneath a camera and was apprehended because my investigator relayed his new look to arresting officers minutes before he would have boarded a bus to Syracuse. He pled guilty to his indictment and is awaiting sentence.
As I write this, my office is trying a man for murder who was arrested — along with his co-defendants — because one of our cameras recorded the license plate of their vehicle. Almost every violent crime we bring to trial has useful camera evidence.
Your editorial of June 1 – in which you call for the release of any camera footage that may shed light on the May 19 encounter between Mayor Gary McCarthy and Sarah Dingley — also deserves a response.
You write that the County’s denial of your FOIL request shows that my office “want(s) to keep the wool over the public’s eye a bit longer.”
The letter denying your FOIL request came from Geoff Hall, the county’s FOIL officer, and is a standard letter he has sent in response to all requests for camera footage for more than a year. The camera system was developed beginning in 2004 by my office, at the initial request of the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association, to deter crime, to help police solve crimes, and to assist in the prosecution of offenders.
We resist any other usage of the cameras because we believe that people have a privacy interest in their comings and goings, albeit somewhat diminished in public spaces.
We also believe that disclosure of camera images could reveal investigative techniques or procedures consisting of camera locations, capabilities and functionality, and are therefore exempted from FOIL. Case law supports this position.
Your editorial argues that the absence of a criminal investigation into the McCarthy-Dingley matter should preclude the county from denying the FOIL request on the grounds that it could interfere with a law enforcement investigation.
But, in an earlier editorial, you called for an independent investigation of the incident. Others, including City Councilman Vince Riggi, have requested the same.
In response to these requests I have asked the court to appoint a special district attorney to conduct such an investigation and I have also directed that any footage from our cameras be preserved.
I have no idea what images may have been captured, but the information will be available for access by that special prosecutor should one be appointed.
Our policy, that camera footage is to be used solely for the purpose of criminal investigation, was implemented long before the incident with the mayor ever took place.
Your insinuation that there is no principle underlying our position on the release of camera images is belied by our consistent adherence to that policy.
Limiting access to camera information was your stated position in February when you called for monitoring of what the cameras will be pointed at, how the images will be used and “who will have access to the recordings.”
Your editorial further posed the question “Should police be constantly collecting information on where and when we drive someplace?”
My answer is consistently yes, but only for the purpose of criminal investigations. Your answer seems to depend on whether or not you want access to it.
Robert M. Carney is the district attorney of Schenectady County.