Ferndale Council Sets Limits on Use & Placement of City-Owned Cameras

Ferndale Council Sets Limits on Use and Placement of City-Owned Cameras

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Sept. 15, 2020)

Ferndale, MI- As the construction wraps up on the dot parking structure in Downtown Ferndale, an element most cities might consider routine became an in-depth look at civil liberties, transparency, and balancing the needs of the government and the rights of the public. The issue was surveillance cameras. And the result was an ordinance that sets clear standards for the circumstances under which cameras can be added and used by the City, with the intent being to limit their use.

Councilpersons Laura Mikulski and Kat Bruner James, as well as the City Attorney, serve on the ordinance committee that reviews the rules of the city.  They took up the task of creating an ordinance which was approved unanimously by council Monday night.

Per the ordinance:

~For long-term cameras (over 90 days), the City will keep a map of all locations.

~Cameras will not record audio.

~Footage shall not be stored beyond 30 days, except for criminal investigations and/or any requirements by federal/state law.

~The city will not use public video recordings for public consumption, for example there won’t be any live streaming of the cameras.

~Facial recognition is prohibited.

~Cameras must be installed in a fixed position, without panning capability

The footage can be accessed by the police department, the city manager or their designee. It can also be used in legal cases.Cameras are currently located at City Hall, the Kulick community Center, the DPW yard, the southwest storage yard, the water pump stations, and trash compactor‘s in the downtown area. They will also be placed in the dot structure.

The ordinance does not impact the rights of other individuals, including business owners, to use cameras.

“So while the city doesn’t have any, private business owners can have them,” said Mayor Melanie Piana.

She also pointed out that people in public spaces could be filmed by others.  “We all have cameras in our pockets,” she said.

The cameras in use help deter crime, and provide a record of events such as when people report damage to their vehicles.  Yet cameras have also been problematic, including the use of facial-recognition software.  In June the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced filing an administrative complaint against police in Detroit who arrested an innocent man after his driver’s license photo was selected as a match to a surveillance video of a man stealing watches. The ACLU said this is the first known case of a false arrest based on facial recognition software.

Ferndale’s ordinance bans facial recognition software.  It also requires council to be part of the process before new cameras are added.  Mayor Piana said she appreciated that the ordinance “allows council to take each camera one case at a time, which won’t lead to the proliferation of cameras.”

The ordinance itself starts with a statement of intent.

“The City of Ferndale finds that the decision to use surveillance technology must be balanced with the need to protect civil rights and civil liberties and the costs to the City. It is the intent of this article to protect the privacy, liberty and safety of the public by regulating the use of public surveillance cameras and to ensure that public surveillance cameras are not used to unreasonably infringe on a person’s privacy or liberty rights. The City of Ferndale finds transparency, oversight and accountability are fundamental to minimizing risks posed by surveillance technologies.”

Councilperson Bruner James, whose day job is civil rights attorney, said of the process “I just want to acknowledge the tension and the difficulty and the balancing that has to be done with a topic like this.”

“There are only so many options available,” she said, explaining that cameras could be banned completely, they could be set up everywhere, or the city could find an “’in between’ that seems like a reasonable use and reasonable restriction.”

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