Does the King County Library System administration place greater value on patron privacy than on public safety?
This question is being raised after library system officials refused to provide Des Moines police with evidence that would help solve a recent violent crime outside the Woodmont Library.
Police investigators had requested surveillance video to identify suspects in the assault and robbery of an elderly patron in the Woodmont Library parking lot.
The library declined “to release the video evidence without a search warrant,” Mayor Bob Sheckler wrote in a May 12 letter to King County Superior Court Judge Richard Eadie, who is also president of the library system’s board of trustees.
Although police officers eventually obtained “a warrant for the video and within a very short time of viewing the video … made an arrest based on information contained in that video,” Sheckler made it clear to Eadie this was not good enough.
“In many criminal investigations, time is a critical factor in whether a case can be successfully resolved,” he said. “Some information such as clothing descriptions are usually of the greatest value when they are obtained immediately and there is a chance the suspect is still in the vicinity.
“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 added. “This was the case in this matter where the elderly robbery victim could not provide or remember certain details about the robbery or robber.”
Yet library officials, citing “their mission to protect the privacy of their patrons,” refused to voluntarily release the video evidence despite the fact the crime occurred in “an outside parking lot area open to the public at large.
“The Library does not need such a rigid policy, which in effect throws the baby out with the bath water,” he noted.
“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.”
Removing Surveillance Cameras
But what happened next “absolutely shocked” Police Chief John O’Leary.
In a May 5 meeting with library representatives, O’Leary was told that “not only was a reasonable and narrowly tailored [privacy] policy not going to be considered, but a decision had already been made by the King County Library System to remove all video surveillance systems on a county-wide basis.”
Sheckler stated, “The rationale explained was that KCLS is more interested in patron privacy and it is not the mission of the KCLS to be in the video security business.”
O’Leary told The Waterland Blog, “I was, and continue to be, extremely disappointed and disheartened by this so-called solution. It is a waste of taxpayers’ money to remove camera systems already installed and paid for. It is a giant step backward from common sense and proven crime prevention strategies.”
In the Woodmont Library case, “not only were we not allowed to view the video, the library staff would not view the video to confirm details of the investigation,” O’Leary said. “It makes me wonder if the library staff had been standing in the very same parking lot, in the same location as the camera, whether they would have provided any information to aid the investigation?…
“Unlike what is portrayed on television, obtaining a search warrant takes time, often hours. In some situations there simply is no choice but to seek a search warrant but that should not have been the case in this investigation.”
Both Sheckler and O’Leary stressed there is a difference between making surveillance video of a crime scene – especially in an open public area – available to police investigators, and in protecting the privacy of library patrons by shielding them from questions about what they view or check out.
“The City of Des Moines considers this action by the King County Library System [to remove surveillance cameras from all libraries where they are installed] to be ill advised. We strongly request you reconsider this decision,” Sheckler urged Eadie.
Copies of his letter have been sent to all King County Library System trustees, library system Director Bill Ptacek, King County Executive Dow Constantine, King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, all members of the King County Council, and the mayors of all King County cities.
A request for an interview was left May 19 in a voicemail at Judge Eadie’s chambers.
King County Library System’s Position
The Woodmont Library/surveillance cameras situation is mentioned in Ptacek’s director’s report for the May 24 board of trustees’ meeting, which will be held in North Bend beginning at 5 p.m., but it will not be on the agenda.
This, Julie Brand, the library system’s director of community relations, told the Waterland Blog, is because the “proposal” to remove the cameras “is an operational issue … it is not a policy related issue so it would not be on the agenda for them [the trustees] to consider.”
Surveillance cameras have been installed over the years at the discretion of local librarians in only 10 of the 46 King County libraries, Brand continued.
Ptacek was out of town and unavailable for comment.
“When this issue came about, it provided KCLS the opportunity” to consider the use of these cameras, she said. “We did a lot of research” that concluded “crimes and violent conduct are not really affected by surveillance cameras.”
And the dispute over release of the surveillance video “was causing an adversarial relationship with the Des Moines Police Department. That’s the last thing we want to have happen … we rely on the police for our safety and our patrons’ safety.”
Brand said the library system never installed surveillance cameras in all libraries “because it is contrary to our principles of intellectual freedom and the right to privacy.”