Victoria’s police board failed the public on two counts last week. First, members did not take effective action on the B.C. privacy’s commissioner’s finding that the police department’s computerized surveillance of drivers is breaking the law.
Second, the board chose to deal with the issue behind closed doors, where the public could not hear the discussion or the justification for continuing to collect data on thousands of motorists despite the threat to individual rights.
Automated licence-plate recognition is a useful tool, used properly. Police in the province, including Victoria and Saanich departments, have more than 40 cars with cameras that scan, check and record up to 3,000 plates an hour. The software can alert an officer to a stolen car or a driver with an outstanding warrant.
Privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham did not find those uses broke the law. But the RCMP-operated system also flags the licence plates of drivers who have not committed any offence, beyond being identified as persons of interest.
And all the data — including information on the 99 per cent of drivers who have done nothing wrong — is sent each day to the RCMP. The force says it destroys the non-hit data, but sees value in retaining it to have a record of people’s movements.
Providing the information to a third party violates privacy laws, said Denham in a report last month.
Saanich police suspended their use of the technology after the commissioner’s report. The privacy issues needed to be resolved, said Frank Leonard, mayor and police board chairman. It appeared Victoria might, belatedly, do the same. Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, also police board chairman, said last week he would propose suspending its use. “I think it’s important we do comply with the privacy laws of British Columbia,” he said.
But the board met last Tuesday and decided police should keep using the cameras. The Victoria Police Department managers are to meet with the RCMP and report — in three months — on possible ways to comply with the law. Why not, like Saanich, suspend the system’s use in the meantime? What made Fortin change his position?
The public has no way of knowing. The police board went in camera, discussing the issue behind closed doors. (The board includes Fortin, Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, a person appointed by each council and five provincial appointees.)
The Police Act says board meetings must be open, with limited exceptions. Boards are allowed to bar the public, for example, to discuss “a matter concerning public security, the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to seriously impair effective policing or law enforcement.”
But a public discussion of whether to suspend use of the cameras until privacy issues are resolved would not “seriously impair effective policing.”
The board has fumbled the issue. It allowed the police department to enter into a contract with the RCMP that gave up all control over future use of the data.
And it failed to ensure privacy and the law had been considered in the VicPD’s use of the technology. Now it has decided, unlike Saanich, to give privacy laws short shrift.
And it was done behind closed doors.
© Copyright 2013