Last Monday, in response to two shootings in Plummer Park, the West Hollywood City Council considered the installation of security cameras there. The discussion began with numerous East End community members voicing support for a city staff recommendation that cameras be installed to deter criminal activity in the park. Among the concerns cited by those residents were recent violent crimes, homeless people sleeping in the park, illicit drug use and lewd conduct in the park after hours. That was followed by a presentation by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who pointed out the advantages of using cameras to help law enforcement address these issues.
City staff advocated a test of a system in which a security camera would be used only after the park closes at 10 p.m. The cameras would be equipped with a motion detector that would be activated by someone in the park after the posted park closing hour. When triggered, the security camera would email a 10-second video to the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station’s communications/dispatch center, which would review it for signs of criminal activity that might require sending a deputy sheriff to the park. In addition to helping the Sheriff’s Department constantly patrol the park after closing, the security cameras would be a deterrent to unlawful activitity there. They are more cost-effective than staffing the park with a uniformed deputy all night, and the video could help solve serious crimes and aid in identifying violent offenders.
Unfortunately, the council was unable to reach an agreement on the security cameras. Ironically, Councilmember Duran, who seems to have very little issue with violating our community member’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, became the self-proclaimed champion of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits government from conducting unlawful searches and seizures. In his comments, Councilmember Duran even went so far as to quote Thomas Jefferson in his razzle dazzle appeal for not supporting security cameras in the park. Under the guise of protecting the public from the eyes of law enforcement, he argued that a camera would be unable to decipher lawful versus unlawful or suspicious activity. He further played up fears of Big Brother using “cameras who are going to be spying on the guilty and innocent alike.”
Councilmember Duran makes his living as an attorney defending people arrested for suspected violations of lewd conduct and illicit drug laws, among other crimes. Does anyone think that there might be a conflict of interest here? Perhaps his interest is less in protecting our Fourth Amendment rights and more in preserving his ability as a defense attorney to litigate away criminal activity based on hearsay in court, creating, as he did at the council meeting, a shadow of doubt. Let’s be clear: video does not lie. Thus, it would be more difficult for Councilmember Duran to defend someone charged with violations of criminal codes and ordinances if law enforcement had video evidence to support the probable cause for making arrest.
￼Because the city ordinance states that Plummer Park is closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., it is a misdemeanor to be in the park after closing. Hence, Councilmember Duran’s assertion that cameras would be spying on the guilty and innocent alike does not hold true. The proposal outlined by city staff clearly stated the motion-activated security cameras would be set to operate only during hours when the park is closed. Thus, anyone caught on camera would be committing a misdemeanor and subject to arrest.
In such a situation, a sheriff’s deputy would be dispatched to determine if more serious crimes were afoot or whether, perhaps, a resident who got off work late just needed to walk his or her dog. The deputy would then have the discretion to choose how best to remedy the situation (i.e. give a warning, document the contact with a field identification card, or for more serious crimes make an arrest.)
The second major flaw in Councilmember Duran’s argument, which I applaud Councilmember Heilman for raising in his support for the security cameras, was his misrepresentation of the scope of the Fourth Amendment. It says: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Unless we missed it, I did not see parks, public spaces or Plummer Park in the citation taken directly from the Fourth Amendment.
A park is a public place, and Supreme Court has asserted numerous times that we do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place. As a matter of fact, the Supreme Court ruled this past week that, like members of the public, law enforcement officers have no right to expect privacy in public that would preclude a member of the public from videotaping their actions. Hence anyone in a public place is subject to the eyes of the public and has no constitutional expectation to privacy. In the case of Plummer Park security cameras, only those people in violation of our city ordinance would be subject to being caught on video.
Mayor Prang, said that “sufficient information from users of Plummer Park … leads me to believe that additional measures were needed to ensure that people not only felt safe at Plummer Park but were safe.” But he waivered on moving forward with implementing security cameras, even though they are more cost-effectiveness than sheriff’s deputy patrols .
If a safer Plummer Park is what we truly desire, a test of motion detector-activated security cameras is a great and cost-effective tool to help our law enforcement professionals keep our city and our park safe. I would strongly support the Public Safety Commission standing fast and not waivering in its support of the pilot security camera program. In addition, I would strongly urge them to deliver to the council the exact same proposal with a request to use the best cameras to ensure the video footage is of the highest quality, which would aid in identifying suspects in serious crimes that might occur in the park. I also would advocate a year-long pilot program to fully evaluate the effectiveness of the cameras. If we are going to doing something to combat crime in our city, we should do it right the first time and set the program up for success. If we choose a lower grade camera, chances are the video quality also will be of lower quality, which could hamper law enforcement’s ability to identify people suspected of serious crimes.
Perhaps in the end, the only people who would lose with the video surveillance footage are Councilmember Duran and the clients he defends – a small price to pay for a safer Plummer Park.