by Ivan Foley
A full report on the Platte City Police Department surveillance camera controversy will be presented at a meeting Monday night.
D.J. Gehrt, city administrator, has said he will give his full report to the public safety subcommittee during a meeting at the Platte City Civic Center that evening. The meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m.
Gehrt says the body of the full report contains detailed narrative, findings and recommendations. His preliminary report, which Gehrt released a couple of weeks, is viewable on The Landmark’s web site at http://www.plattecountylandmark.com/DRAFT.htm
The report comes as a result of an incident in which Platte City police placed a surveillance camera in a tree on private property without the permission of the property owner. The camera was aimed into the back yard of a duplex owned by Steve Nash and occupied on one side by Nash and the other side by his daughter, Stephanie Santos and family.
Gehrt’s early report indicates the camera was in place for three days. Nash noticed the camera in the tree on a neighboring lot on Nov. 1 and his daughter phoned the police about it the following day.
The American Civil Liberties Union reacted
strongly on Santos’ behalf with a blistering letter to Carl Mitchell, chief of police (find that letter at http://www.plattecountylandmark.com/ACLU.htm). Doug Bonney, legal director for the ACLU, also had a strong negative reaction to Gehrt’s preliminary report, calling it a “bizarre, bureaucratic bunch of garbage.”
“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.”
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.
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.
As a result of the 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.