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ACLU holds panel discussion on police use of surveillance devices

Officials with two government watchdog groups emphasized Thursday the importance of standards to safeguard against any possible government misuse of new and increasingly used electronic surveillance technology.

They spoke at a panel discussion on the increasing use of surveillance technology by law enforcement and ways to protect privacy. The discussion was hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

Sharon Bradford Franklin of the Washington, D.C.-based Constitution Project said surveillance technologies can be useful tools for law enforcement officials if they are designed to achieve realistic purposes and if governments “build in appropriate safeguards at the get-go.”

Bradford, whose work focuses on issues of government secrecy and individual privacy, was joined on the panel by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department attorney Mark Newbold and Sarah Preston, the policy director for the ACLU of North Carolina.

There has been increasing debate nationally and locally about police departments’ growing use of electronic surveillance devices, especially ones initially developed for military purposes.

“There can be bad apples anywhere,” Preston said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police recently told city council members they have access to more than 600 video cameras and want to begin partnerships with Charlotte businesses that would extend the reach of the department’s camera network.

The department also uses an electronic gunshot detection network to pinpoint gunfire in the center city and in the Grier Heights neighborhood in southeast Charlotte. And officers operate license plate readers to scan the tags of thousands of cars a day.

Newbold told the dozens of people in the audience that police are aware of the public’s concerns about privacy and civil liberties. He said the surveillance devices are only used when police have reasonable suspicions of criminal activity.

Even so, the police attorney said more standards are needed.

Who has access to surveillance data and how long the data is stored, Newbold said, are among the most important issues that need to be standardized.

Ellis: 704-358-5298
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