Fayette County

Lexington must tell citizens how it uses surveillance cameras, judge rules

Surveillance cameras are in use in Berry Hill Skatepark on Buckhorn Drive in Lexington. A sign at the entrance states that video cameras are in use.
Surveillance cameras are in use in Berry Hill Skatepark on Buckhorn Drive in Lexington. A sign at the entrance states that video cameras are in use. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Lexington must release information about the city's surveillance cameras and the policies surrounding their use, a judge ordered last week.

Mike Maharrey, an activist and organizer for "We See You Watching Lexington," said his victory over the city is huge for the people of Lexington.

"Now, hopefully, we will get the kind of transparency we deserve," Maharrey wrote. "Whenever I talk about surveillance, people always ask me 'What do you have to hide?' Well, I've been asking that question about this city for nearly a year. I don't think a little transparency and oversight is too much to ask for."

The battle between activist Mike Maharrey and Lexington began last summer when he asked for documents related to the city's operation of surveillance cameras. Maharrey's open records request asked for information related to the city's surveillance technology, including purchase orders, grant applications and receipts for the devices, contracts with outside vendors, training manuals related to the technologies and written policies governing their use.

His request was part of We See You Watching Lexington's efforts to learn more about the city's surveillance and to ensure accountability exists, according to a news release from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The police department told Maharrey it used 29 mobile surveillance cameras "available for a variety of video surveillance operations," but did not provide any additional information other than redacted documents disclosing costs, according to Maharrey.

Policies outlining how the cameras can be used did not have to be disclosed under under the state's Open Records Act, the city claimed. Maharrey appealed to Attorney General Andy Beshear's office, which ruled the city was wrong to deny Maharrey and ordered the city to turn over the documents.

The city sued Maharrey on Sept. 29 in Fayette Circuit Court to stop the release of documents, prompting the ACLU to help Maharrey.

According to Maharrey, the lawsuit was clearly a bullying tactic, but one that failed when Fayette Circuit Judge John Reynolds ordered the city to release the documents.

Reynolds ruled the city incorrectly relied on exemptions in the Open Records Act to shield themselves from releasing the requested information.

"Government secrecy steals power from people. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best antiseptic," Maharrey said. "The city's default position was to maintain secrecy, to keep the blinds closed, to slam the door in our face."

The city has 30 days to appeal, or else it must release Maharrey's requested documents. The city has not made a decision on whether to appeal, according to Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for the city of Lexington.

The ACLU called Maharrey's win a "victory for government accountability and transparency."

“City officials claimed that releasing their training manuals and information about the models of surveillance cameras would threaten police officers and public safety and would lead to a reasonable likelihood of a terrorist attack. We’re pleased the courts saw past these unfounded claims and upheld Kentucky’s strong Open Records law,” said ACLU of Kentucky Attorney Heather Gatnarek.

Maharrey is now focused on pushing for a city ordinance that will guide surveillance tactics in the future.

"We have a right to weigh in and decide whether or not the benefit of surveillance technology outweighs the potential for abuse and violation of our basic rights," he wrote. "We have a right to insist government agencies operate potentially invasive technology with oversight and transparency, in a manner that respects our civil liberties."