Des Moines and KCLS at odds over surviellance camera policy
The city of Des Moines and the King County Library System (KCLS) are at odds over surveillance camera’s and library patron’s privacy.
On March 14 an elderly man was robbed and assaulted in the parking lot of the Woodmont Library in Des Moines. Shaken up by the crime, he was not able to give police a description of his assailant.
The strong-arm robbery, a felony crime, was caught on the Library’s surveillance cameras on the parking lot. KCLS denied both the initial request and a public records request by Des Moines Police to view the footage, telling them they would need a warrant.
“We are not in the business of the video surveillance of the community,” Director of KCLS Bill Ptacek said.
Des Moines Prosecuting Attorney Tim George said it can take 4-6 hours to get a warrant on a high priority case. He said after KCLS refused to release the video the urgency was no longer there.
George described KCLS’s stance as “troubling.” He said police have never had this problem getting surveillance video footage of a crime from any of the local bars and businesses in Des Moines.
Five days after the crime occurred the Des Moines Police obtained a warrant, and an hour after viewing the video had a suspect in custody.
To prevent further conflict with local law enforcement agencies KCLS is removing the cameras from the 10 libraries that have them.
Ptacek said KCLS receives requests from police every couple of months, which was not their intended purpose when they were installed.
The incident at the Woodmont Library is not the reason KCLS is removing all of the video cameras, Ptacek said, but it did get them started on looking at the issue.
“They have taken on a life of their own which they were never intended to do,” Ptacek said.
Ptacek said the entire reason they were installed was so library staff could check out the parking lot before leaving from work. The removal of the cameras will save KCLS $30,000 a year in maintenance.
George said because the Library is a public agency the surveillance camera footage should be public record.
But KCLS feels the Washington law that says the surveillance camera footage falls under the same law that prevents the library from being compelled to hand over library records of patrons.
RCW 42.56.310 states, “Any library record, the primary purpose of which is to maintain control of library materials, or to gain access to information, that discloses or could be used to disclose the identity of a library user is exempt from disclosure in this chapter.”
“What we take it to mean is we can't request what kind of books people are checking out and what they are looking up on a public computer,” George said. “This is not a blanket request to view all videos, it is a targeted request to view a serious crime that had just occurred.”
But KCLS does not feel there should be any exceptions to releasing the video footage. “Where do you draw the line?” Ptacek said. “(Surveillance is) not our business.”
Des Moines Mayor Bob Sheckler has written a letter to KCLS Board President Richard Eadie urging them to reconsider their position.
“Video can also be critical when dealing with victims that are especially vulnerable, such as the very young or elderly, who frequently find it difficult to clearly relate and recall important details,” Sheckler wrote. “This was the case in this matter where the elderly robbery victim could not provide or remember certain details about the robbery or robber.
“The Library does not need such a rigid policy, which in effect throws the baby out with the bath water.
“The Des Moines Police Department feels very strongly that in an open public area there is clearly a reduced expectation of privacy for library patrons, and a workable compromise to requiring a search warrant in all cases could be reached.”