Are Surveillance Camera Regulations in Pittsburgh Being Ignored?

The city’s Privacy Policy for Public Security Camera Systems set rules on where the city can surveil, but Mayor Bill Peduto confirmed “we’re not following the rules right now.”

by Rich Lord, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / April 14, 2015

(TNS) -- A largely ignored privacy law that Bill Peduto pushed for when he was a Pittsburgh councilman should be enforced but loosened to allow police to look further back in time using surveillance footage, the mayor said last week.

The city’s Privacy Policy for Public Security Camera Systems, hashed out in 2008 between council and then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, set rules on where the city can surveil, who may see the footage and how long it should be stored. Mr. Peduto drove that legislation and became mayor 15 months ago — but confirmed Thursday that “we’re not following the rules right now.”

Required anti-discrimination guidelines don’t exist, no civilians sit on a review committee, and neighborhood groups that deploy cameras get no privacy training and may not keep needed records, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found.

That’s in part because there’s friction between the ordinance and provisions of federal grants that pay for many city cameras, Mr. Peduto said.

“We can have a good code but no cameras because we can’t afford to buy them,” he said. “Or we can seek the federal grants that every city seeks, and find that some of it … doesn’t allow us to follow the code.”

A leading privacy advocate said grant terms shouldn’t trump privacy rules.

“The civilian involvement and transparency about where these cameras are going is very, very important,” said Ginger McCall, director of the Open Government Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in Washington, D.C. “Transparency about this is really the only thing that’s going to stop abuse of the system.”

Void in zoom rules

The ordinance was written as the city prepared for what has since become a $5.7 million investment in cameras and related hardware. In addition, tens of thousands of city dollars have flowed to neighborhood groups that have built their own camera networks.

Council didn’t want camera operators to “pan, tilt or zoom” in on people “on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, age, gender, class, economic status, or sexual orientation,” as the ordinance puts it, and demanded that the administration develop “guidelines” to prevent that.

However, Mr. Peduto said he found “a system that was [devoid] of really any of the criteria.” He has begun to create the Camera Review Committee called for in the ordinance to address that and other gaps.

The ordinance said the committee should consist of four city employees and three members of the public. But Mr. Peduto said involving the public in camera placement decisions might run afoul of federal Department of Homeland Security grant rules. Which rules? He could not disclose that “without actually violating the terms of the grant.”

Similarly, the city hasn’t notified the public of camera locations, nor posted signs near cameras, as the ordinance requires. Mr. Peduto said the Public Safety Department eventually will evaluate whether those provisions conflict with the federal rules.

Longer rewind

The ordinance was a compromise between police who want evidence and civil libertarians who fear Big Brother-like surveillance and assembly of data.

One compromise: a plank that all city footage “must be automatically deleted or recorded over after expiration of ten (10) days except where retained for a specific criminal investigation” or an event for which the city might be liable.

Mr. Peduto said he plans on “going back to council to extend that deadline. … I don’t know that 10 days really gives enough time for investigations to be fully vetted. … I would hate to throw out evidence simply because we have an arbitrary date set.”

“The more data you have and the longer it’s being retained, the larger the privacy problem is” because it increases the risk of misuse or breach, Ms. McCall said.

Mr. Peduto said only designated, trained city employees can access the footage, and they keep records of all reviews.

A camera right above his porch swing doesn’t bother Charles Treichler of Monterey Street in the Central North Side. “I feel like at this point, the way we live, we’re under surveillance most of the time,” said Mr. Treichler, a communications manager, adding that he wished there were cameras a few blocks over, where he was “held up at gunpoint” in November.

But accountant Fritz Schaupp, also on Monterey, doesn’t embrace the ever-present eye. “I don’t have anything to hide,” he said, but he’d “prefer not to have it. … Sooner or later, we won’t be able to do anything without somebody noting it.”

Neighborly data

In neighborhoods where dozens of city-paid cameras feed into computers owned by civic groups, there’s little evidence of enforcement of the ordinance. Neighborhood group camera operators must be specifically designated, get city training in the privacy rules, acknowledge the city policies and keep logs of access to footage.

Troy Hill Citizens Inc., for instance, has about a dozen cameras throughout the neighborhood. “I have heard nothing but positive, and, ‘Why don’t we have a camera on my street?’ ” said Nancy Noszka, a development consultant for the group. Neither she nor group board member Jeff Anesin could recall any city privacy training nor drafting of a policy on access to footage, though they did have a copy of the ordinance.

At the Cafe on the Corner in Marshall-Shadeland, cameras owned by the Brightwood Civic Group and paid for by the city, point down Woodland and Shadeland streets. In 2010, those monitors captured the flight of Cordell Brown, 17, and Tyrone Thomas, 16, from the scene of the killing of retired firefighter Mark Barry. Both are serving decades in prison for murder.

Joe Brown, public safety committee chairman for the Brightwood group, believes that access to past footage “should be limited to a certain number of people,” adding that the group has only “kind of an unwritten policy.”

Several other groups confirmed a lack of training, formal rules and written records.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris, who has steered camera funding to eight North Side organizations since early 2014, said the groups may be untrained but “have common sense.” Told that the ordinance is being ignored, she called it “one of many.”

Mr. Peduto said council members should tell their groups about the rules, adding that the sanction for ignoring them is “removal of the cameras.”

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith is now trying to direct camera funding to Pittsburgh’s western neighborhoods. “I have 17 neighborhoods. I want to put them in all of our neighborhoods,” she said, figuring that 33 electronic eyes would deter crime.

She knows that neighborhood groups are supposed to certify that they understand the rules. “Who does the certification?” she asked. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. It’s very vague.”

©2015 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Platforms & Programs