‘I hope people don’t perceive this as ‘Big Brother.’ ’
After a controversial rollout, the Wichita Police Department is seeking the public’s help in drafting a policy for its surveillance cameras in Old Town — and beyond.
Should the chief of police be able to decide when to release surveillance video footage? Should the cameras be pointed through windows or into private rooms? What about traffic tickets?
“We have conducted a one year policy review and updated the public safety camera policy and are seeking community input and feedback,” a statement on the Wichita Police Department website says. “We recognize sensitivities associated with the use of this technology and seek your thoughts.”
Opening the draft policy for public comment is part of Wichita police’s push for transparency throughout the department, Wichita police Officer Charley Davidson said.
Wichita police Chief Gordon Ramsay, in discussions about transparency, has said he welcomes “people to poke, prod, pull back layers, ask questions — because it makes us better. And it helps the citizens understand.”
The cameras will be used for “detecting and deterring crime, to help safeguard against potential threats to the public, to help manage emergency response situations during natural and man-made disasters and to assist City of Wichita officials in providing services to the community and safeguarding city assets,” the policy says.
Although initially billed as a tool to clean-up the historically crime-plagued Old Town district on weekends and later expanded to regular use for major public safety concerns, it wasn’t long before the city used its $700,000 high-definition camera system to write tickets for minor traffic violations, such as improper lane changes and rolling through a stop sign.
The cameras were installed in June 2017. The system found early success, aiding police in an arrest for aggravated assault in September, following a fight in Old Town.
Traffic enforcement with the cameras started on Oct. 18. During the first two hours of the program, Wichita police wrote 50 tickets. During a two-hour enforcement period on a Thursday morning in November, Wichita police used the cameras to write 55 tickets.
After three weeks, the pilot program was shut down, and city officials met to discuss the use of the cameras going forward.
The controversial video tickets were part of a pilot program in the use of the new equipment, city officials said.
Many viewed the camera network as a “Big Brother” move by local government. Others saw it as a way for the city to recoup the costs of installing the cameras.
City Manager Robert Layton told The Eagle in November that the purpose of the cameras isn’t to generate ticket revenue, but to help ensure public safety.
Wichita police policies, along with federal, state and local laws, drive the way officers enforce the law, and this is an opportunity for the public to take part in that process.
The cameras policy is not in its final form and will undergo further review before it is implemented, Davidson said. Public feedback will be included in the discussion about the final version of the policy.
The proposed policy would allow the cameras to be used to give out traffic tickets. The policy says traffic enforcement would require the police chief’s written approval.
Davidson did not explicitly say if Wichita police intend to use the cameras to issue traffic tickets, stressing that this policy is not final, but pointed to previous public statements by city officials who said the cameras would be used for traffic enforcement.
In November, Layton said the cameras would be part of increased traffic enforcement citywide.
“If we see poor driving habits that are going to result in either accidents or the threat of accidents, then we’ll probably step it up again,” he said at the time.
“Nothing has changed regarding the City’s position on cameras related to traffic enforcement,” Davidson said in an email.
The purpose of the surveillance cameras policy is to “prevent improper use or abuse of captured video and to ensure city employees exercise the highest standards when handling and managing recordings.”
The video cameras will record 24 hours a day and the footage will be stored for up to 30 days and then destroyed, unless it becomes part of a criminal investigation, court proceedings or authorized city administrative purposes, the policy draft says.
By default, the video files will “generally not be disclosed to the public” when part of a criminal investigation “unless the Chief of Police deems the video(s) of sufficient public interest to warrant an immediate release.”
Ramsay has expressed his desire for lawmakers to provide clarity in the Kansas Open Records Act about when video records, such as body-camera footage, should be considered public or private.
Critics have argued that granting such latitude to the chief of police allows the department to pick and choose what it releases according to how it reflects the department. Ramsay has said in the past that department policies prevent him from releasing video footage he would like to make public in high-profile cases. This policy would allow him to do that with surveillance camera footage.
Here are the block locations of the downtown Public Safety Cameras:
▪ 200 N. Washington
▪ 100 N. Mead
▪ 300 N. Mead
▪ 200 N. Mosley
▪ 100 N. Mosley
▪ 800 E. Douglas
▪ 800 E. First St.
▪ 100 N. Washington
▪ 100 N. Mosley
▪ 200 N. Mead
▪ 300 N. Mosley
▪ 2nd and St. Francis
▪ Douglas and St. Francis.