Police Surveillance Cameras at Charlottesville Parks Raise Questions
An organization dedicated to defending civil liberties and human rights is speaking out about Charlottesville police installing cameras at city parks without the public knowing.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - A nonprofit organization dedicated to defending civil liberties and human rights is speaking out about Charlottesville police installing cameras without the public knowing.
Constitutional expert John Whitehead, president of the Albemarle County-based Rutherford Institute, says people have the right to know when they are being watched.
Authorities placed unmarked surveillance cameras at Charlottesville’s Emancipation and Justice parks a few weeks ago. Both parks are home to statues of Confederate Army generals – Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, respectively – and have been the center of debate for the city.
Members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are scheduled to hold a rally at Justice Park on Saturday, July 8. Multiple groups are planning to hold events around the city on the same day to counter the North Carolina-based group's rally.
Officers with the Charlottesville Police Department will be on-hand at the park, and will likely be equipped with body cameras. Law enforcement from Virginia State Police, Albemarle County Police Department, University of Virginia Police and the Albemarle County Sheriff's Office will also be assisting.
"It's really a no-brainer that we would be there to help them, and if the roles were reversed that would be the same for us," said Albemarle County Police Public Information Officer Madaline Curott.
Whitehead stresses government transparency: "People should be told these things way ahead of time, because government should be telling us what they're doing. We are the employers, we pay the taxes, please tell us what you're doing ladies and gentlemen so that we can prepare and act accordingly."
Additionally, Whitehead is reminding everyone that surveillance captures a wider range and shows everything a person is doing. He questions if these actions by police will cause people to be fearful of writing words on the Freedom of Speech Wall on the Downtown Mall, because of possible unknown surveillance.
NBC29 asked Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas, Mayor Mike Signer, City Manager Maurice Jones, and public information officers for both the city and police department nine questions about the cameras we're aware of, and if there are others:
- How much did the cameras/installation cost?
- Where did those funds come from?
- How are the cameras monitored?
- Who monitors them and are those hours replacing other duties?
- Is the video from the cameras recorded?
- If the images are recorded, how long are the images saved?
- Are the images from the camera available through Freedom of Information Act access?
- How long are the cameras expected to remain across from the parks?
- Does the Charlottesville Police Department have cameras in places other than those two parks?
Similar questions were submitted to officials when Charlottesville debated installing police-controlled surveillance cameras on the Downtown Mall.
The police department held a press conference shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday, July 6, to answer some of those questions.
Charlottesville Police Captain Wendy Lewis said the surveillance equipment at the parks is borrowed, and that cameras are currently running on a loop. The footage will be used to help police identify any persons suspected of a crime during events Saturday.
It's unclear when the cameras will be taken down, but police maintain they are being used only for safety.
"The only time we would save any video footage… Just like our body cameras that we wear, you know, the day of the event we'll have over 100 cameras there with our body cameras. The only time we would save the video footage is again for investigative purposes or evidentiary purposes," the captain said.
NBC29 asked if the law enforcement plans to use aerial surveillance – such as a drone - during the events. Captain Lewis said the department had no comment.
Charlottesville police did confirm the same surveillance cameras at Emancipation and Justice parks will stay in place for another rally later in the summer.
White activist Jason Kessler is scheduled to host “Unite the Right” at Emancipation Park on August 12.
Kessler is the founder and president of Unity and Security for America, which has described itself as "dedicated to defending Western Civilization including its history, culture and peoples while utterly dismantling Cultural Marxism."
The Traditionalist Workers Party, a political organization that identifies with white nationalism, has mentioned Kessler’s rally on its Facebook page. The group is encouraging people to "stand for our monuments, our culture, and future."