by Valerie Verkamp
Stephanie Santos isn’t pleased.
Santos, the woman whose backyard was photographed for more than three days by a hidden Platte City Police Department surveillance camera mounted in a tree on a neighboring private property lot without the consent of the property owner, says she isn’t happy with the response by the city thus far.
In the time since she reported the camera, which faced the family's backyard and bedroom windows, Santos says she doesn’t feel like the city’s reaction has been appropriate.
“I don't feel like they are taking their actions seriously,” said Santos. “I feel like the city administrator has become pals with the chief of police and they want to buddy up to protect each other’s jobs and sweep all of this under the rug.”
Santos is also concerned that the public safety subcommittee will merely go along with anything the city administrator recommends without a thorough examination of what she deems as intrusive behavior.
Santos says at this time it is not her intent to bring a civil suit against Platte City for allegedly violating her Fourth Amendment rights, which protects the home and its surroundings from unreasonable government invasion, but she is disappointed that city officials have failed to assure her that nothing like that is going to happen again.
“It (legal action) is something I would loathe to do because of my religious convictions, but the thought is definitely in my mind,” said Santos regarding the possibility of filing a civil lawsuit.
Santos further explained her reaction to the city’s report this way:
“When I read it, what I see is the city acting like one of my kids who has been caught doing something they know they ought not.
“What I'd really like is to see our city officials display integrity of character. Stand up for truth, admit wrongdoing, correct mistakes, make restitution, and build bridges with the community. Instead, what I see is a mad-dash scramble to pull the wool over anything and everything that might appear amiss, to pass around the agreed-upon cover story, and above all to protect themselves.”
Steve Nash is Santos’ father. He owns the duplex in which she resides. Nash lives in the other half of the duplex at 101 Wallingford. His reaction to the initial city report is similar to that of his daughter.
“My basic reaction is that they have hardened their hearts. They are focused on themselves and not on the citizens of Platte City,” Nash said Tuesday afternoon. “They are circling the wagons.”
The Landmark Newspaper emailed D.J. Gehrt, city administrator, early Tuesday morning requesting a sit-down interview on the topic. A short time later, Gehrt sent over a summary report regarding the city's findings and recommendations following an investigation into the actions of police and their use of digital game cameras on private property.
After The Landmark informed the Santos family of the report and its contents, Santos was unhappy that she has been kept in the dark on this matter.
“I would like city officials to keep me in the loop and I'm not getting that respect,” she said.
The summary report acknowledges that the Platte City Police Department “displayed poor judgment” when it mounted a digital camera in “close proximity” to the Santos' home and indicated these actions jeopardized the city's credibility.
The investigation shows the surveillance camera had been put in the tree on Tuesday morning, Oct. 30. After being noticed by Nash on Nov. 1 and reported to police by Santos on Nov. 2, it was removed on Friday evening, Nov. 2.
“The police department deployed newly obtained technology prior to developing policies and procedures for its use and prior to fully understanding the technical capabilities of the equipment,” states the report written by Gehrt.
Although the city admits certain wrongdoings, city officials claim they don't believe the police department violated anyone's Fourth Amendment rights. City officials argue that since the digital game camera only viewed a “portion” of the Santos' home and backyard, police did not violate any privacy rights and cite the plain view doctrine, which may allow a police officer to conduct a warrantless search if there is visible evidence of a criminal activity.
Santos strongly disagrees with the city’s position that no violation of the Fourth Amendment occurred.
“As to whether or not my Fourth Amendment rights were legally violated, I believe they were, and I would point anyone who says otherwise to the cases Mr. Bonney (legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union) cited in his letter. (See related story for details).
In his report, the city administrator wrote:
“The interaction of rapidly changing technology and the impact on privacy rights and the expectations of privacy are continually evolving areas. The department did not adequately take these issues into account when deploying the camera, especially considering the relatively low priority of information being sought.”
The press release and attached four page document points out the camera was installed to capture images to provide “information regarding feral cats and associated wildlife on Wallingford Drive” and indicates the police department employed “extreme” measures to conduct their investigation.
“The use of this technology and the proximity of (the) camera to the property was a much more active investigation method than was required compared to the relatively low priority of the information being obtained,” states the summary report.
Despite what many private citizens consider intrusive conduct, the report indicates the police department should not be held accountable for trespassing, because they did not knowingly place the camera on private property.
“I'm pretty sure that ignorance doesn't get you off the hook,” said Santos. “You have to follow laws regardless of whether you know about them and that includes citizens and police officers.”
Gehrt said the police department did not “intend” to be on private property owned by Cheremie Kratzer when the department mounted a camera set on time lapse to record activity during the daylight hours. The city administrator found that police “reasonably believed that the camera was on public property and they did not refuse a demand from the property owner to leave the property.”
It also asserts that police officials did not “deliberately” provide the Santos family with false information when they initially said the camera was installed to “monitor people cutting through the woods.”
Gehrt did admit the city has taken a credibility hit.
“The credibility of the police department and the city government as a whole has been diminished by inaccurate and inconsistent information provided (by police) to the property owners,” the city administrator said.
ACLU HAS STRONG
Doug Bonney, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, said after reading the city administrator's summary he is troubled by the city's report and feels city officials have not learned their lesson.
“They put this (camera) out before adopting policies on the use of cameras for surveillance,” Bonney said. “I think that whatever the merits of the Fourth Amendment issue may be, I think that most citizens find this very creepy. I don't read this report as disavowing an intent to post cameras for surveillance of peoples' yards. It seems clear to me that they should disavow that. I think the average citizen thinks the government has no business erecting surveillance cameras to spy on peoples' private yards.”
Bonney called the executive summary issued by D.J. Gehrt as a “bizarre, bureaucratic bunch of garbage.”
“It reads like something out of 1984 (the novel by George Orwell) or the movie Brazil,” he said.
“Rather than them trying to argue how this is not a violation of someone's Fourth Amendment rights, they need to spend more time worrying about whether this just violates the basic notions of decency and privacy in the 21st century, and I think the answer to that is it absolutely does. And they don't seem to have learned that yet.”
Bonney, who sent Platte City Police Chief Carl Mitchell an admonitory letter on Monday, Nov. 5 (see related story for the entire contents of that letter), says he is also disappointed city officials failed to contact him before issuing a boilerplate report.
“They apparently think that they can just ignore me,” he said.
Gehrt, the city administrator, admitted Tuesday most citizens of Platte City would not view the Platte City Police Department's disregard for their privacy as appropriate.
“What we did is not an appropriate use of technology based on the location near the back yard. We did not display good judgment on that,” Gehrt said. ”We need to be more respectful.”
As a result of the police department's actions, certain measures need to be taken, he suggested.
“Meeting the requirements of the Fourth Amendment is an absolute minimum,” said D.J. Gehrt.
He said officials should ask themselves whether the “action is appropriate and “should we be doing this to our citizens?” said Gehrt. “That's the thing we have to fix,” indicating action is needed to improve the public's trust in the police department, as well as city.
“It appears there is a disconnect with the city and the public. We can't go around saying there's a disconnect and a trust problem and wait for time to heal it,” Gehrt said.
In order to restore that sense of trust, Gehrt recommended that the police department suspend its use of surveillance cameras until a full investigative report is finished and a policy regulating the uses of digital cameras is adopted.
“The department will continue the use of its standard officer safety video/audio recording equipment such as in-car equipment and personal interview equipment,” said Gehrt.
In addition, he recommended that law enforcement officers undergo training to ensure their investigative tactics are consistent to the incident under investigation and suggested city employees receive training regarding the “importance of providing accurate information” to the citizens of Platte City.
The city administrator's recommendations and findings will be presented to the public safety subcommittee during its next meeting scheduled Monday Dec. 3. Afterward, the committee may recommend any personnel actions they deem appropriate to the Platte City Board of Aldermen.
In addition to the public safety sub-committee, the city also has a rules and ethics committee and a personnel committee, both of which may or may not eventually weigh in on this topic. Mayor Frank Offutt said this week he has requested all reports on the situation and indicated he will likely seek more information.
To read the entire report issued by the city administrator this week, go to http://www.plattecountylandmark.com/DRAFT.htm