News / Hamilton

Hamilton police violating video surveillance guidelines

Hamilton police have been violating provincial guidelines on video surveillance for years even as they prepare to expand the program by taking it mobile and gathering footage of citizens at parades, protests and other public events.

The violations come despite earlier promises by police to be "compliant in every respect" with video surveillance guidelines issued by the province's privacy commissioner. Those promises were made in 2003 as police waged a public relations battle for approval to mount the first five CCTV cameras in the city's core.

That pilot project was made permanent and then expanded; police now film the public 24 hours a day from 17 CCTV cameras located downtown and in several business areas across the city.

The provincial guidelines serve two purposes — they help protect the public's privacy and help police stay on the right side of federal and provincial privacy laws.

The Hamilton police violations centre on how long they retain the surveillance video, the failure to perform the suggested audits of the system to ensure they're meeting privacy guidelines and the failure to provide annual reports assessing the continued need for, and benefits of, police filming citizens on public streets.

It's not clear when the police stopped adhering to the provincial guidelines.

In interviews in 2010, police said they no longer collected statistics on the program's effectiveness.

Neither police Inspector Scott Rastin nor police board chair Mayor Bob Bratina were able to identify the last time the service had conducted an audit of their surveillance program or reported on its effectiveness to the board.

On the critical issue of how long the videos are kept, police provided mixed signals.

In a 2010 interview, Staff Sergeant Mark Cox, who oversaw the program and the CCTV command centre, would not disclose how long the video records were kept, saying only that they're retained for "a significant amount of time."

The guidelines suggest a 48- to 72-hour retention.

Rastin Thursday gave two different answers, initially saying while the policy called for police to request video from the files within 72 hours, in practice "the information is there for a week … effectively we have it for a week."

Told later that this appeared to violate privacy guidelines, Rastin amended his answer in an email, saying, "I looked into the retention, it's 72 hours."

He admitted they had failed to report on the CCTV program to the police services board but said, "We have enhanced the monitoring of the system this year," and that it would be reported in the 2013 final crime prevention report.

The failures have come to light at an awkward time.

On Monday, the Hamilton Police Services Board approved the acquisition of a $42,000 trailer equipped with Wi-Fi ready, remote-operated video cameras on a mast that can be raised high into the air. There was no mention of privacy guidelines or policies, either verbally, or in the written documents supporting the purchase. It was approved without debate.

Rastin initially said the mobile surveillance unit would sometimes be used covertly, for example, to keep watch on a business suffering repeated graffiti attacks. When it was pointed out that this, too, would violate privacy guidelines, he emailed back that the device would not be used covertly.

Violating the privacy commissioner's guidelines does not necessarily mean Hamilton police have broken any federal or provincial privacy laws. Michelle Chibba, the Ontario privacy commissioner's director of policy, explained the guidelines are designed to assist police in ensuring they comply with the laws — they are not laws in themselves.

Chibba said that as a result of The Spectator's phone calls, the privacy office has already contacted the Hamilton Police Service to open a dialogue about the privacy guidelines.

"They are receptive" she said.

Mayor Bob Bratina, the police board's newly elected chair, said he trusts police to use the CCTV cameras properly, keeping not just within the law, but within board policies, as well.

"It's fair that we bring this up at the next (police services) board meeting to ensure we all know what the policies and procedures are, but I have no concerns that this is going to be used for covert purposes or to invade anyone's privacy."

Both Rastin and Bratina say they believe most Hamiltonians support the use of CCTV cameras because they contribute to crime prevention and public safety.

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