Legal Challenges of Municipal Video Surveillance Systems

Public-Private Partnerships Help Reduce Risk and Increase Performance

Alan Wohlstetter, attorney at Fox Rothschild, LLP, recently wrote an opinion piece called “Municipal video surveillance systems: Legal and financial challenges“. In the article he notes that municipal video surveillance systems are, “a force-multiplier for local police,” but questions who should own such a system. 

Wohlstetter suggests considering that civic surveillance systems should be set up under an, “independent city-related entity” to reduce liability from the video surveillance system. “Such a legal arrangement insulates the city or town from liability.”

How would an independent city-related entity work?

“A city-related entity would own the municipal video surveillance system, and would set forth the public policy purposes to be served by the system,” says Wohlstetter, continuing, “It may be appropriate however, to involve the private sector in a public-private partnership, increasing the efficiency and responsiveness of the system.”

His argument is that the private sector is better equipped to handle the inherent risk associated with a municipal video surveillance system. There is also a second level of accountability uniquely established when a private partner engages the public sector leading to better performance.

Fourth amendment concerns regarding reasonable expectation of privacy

When security cameras are used in public places, there is concern that video cameras and those reviewing the video will be able to view into private areas. The best way for cities and towns to avoid this problem is to focus the cameras on public places such as parks and playgrounds, but when necessary, “There is a technology which can actually block images taken from inside homes — images that could violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights.”

In Summary

Wohlstetter concludes, “Set up properly, through a public-private partnership, a municipal video surveillance system can be tailored to a community’s needs, creating an avenue for public input and enhancement of public safety. If not handled properly, such a system can create an Orwellian society where ‘Big Brother is watching,’ and law-abiding citizens feel as threatened as criminals.” Through community buy-in, civic surveillance can be more transparent and useful, rather than feared.