Lexington should end secrecy about surveillance cameras

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

Lexington's government should waste no more money and no more of the courts' time trying to withhold non-sensitive information about its surveillance technology.

Contrary to the city's claims, no criminal investigations, police officers or confidential informants would be put at risk by revealing how much tax money has been spent buying surveillance cameras or by disclosing the camera models or operator's manuals. That was Fayette Circuit Judge John Reynolds' conclusion in a June 19 ruling.

Nor, ruled Reynolds, does such information fall under the homeland security exemptions that the city tried to claim. Those exemptions in state law are meant to shield sensitive information that could aid terrorists in an attack, such as vulnerability assessments or antiterrorism plans. The judge said Lexington police camera models and training manuals clearly are not what that law is intended to protect.

Both the attorney general's office and the circuit court have now rejected the city's arguments in what began as a request under the Kentucky Open Records Act by Michael Maharrey, an activist and founder of We See You Watching Lexington, an informal coalition concerned about privacy and government surveillance.

In his open records request, Maharrey asked for documents pertaining to a number of technologies, including voice and facial recognition, mobile DNA capture, automatic license plate readers and drones.

The police department responded that it had no documents pertaining to those technologies, which we can assume means Lexington police aren't using that whiz bang stuff. At least not yet.

The police department did say that it owns 824 body-worn cameras and "29 cameras available for a variety of video surveillance applications" that are "deployed as needed in support of active investigations." The police department heavily redacted the records on the 29 surveillance cameras in ways that the judge and AG say violate the Open Records Act.

After the AG's decision, the city filed suit against Meharrey to block release of the records. The Kentucky chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union provided him with lawyers who successfully argued his case.

The city has not decided whether to appeal Reynolds' ruling.

How to balance privacy and security in our high-tech age poses many thorny questions. This is not one of them. The city should drop this fight.