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Herald staff | needtoknow@heraldnet.com
Published: Sunday, August 21, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Lynnwood cops using traffic cameras for investigations

Start talking traffic cameras and "Big Brother" theories, and you might as well don a tinfoil hat and describe Elvis and Tupac alive together, faking the moon landing.

Most people in today's tech-savvy world realize they're frequently under surveillance. We routinely write about robberies in which the cops ask businesses to hand over surveillance videos that may help them find the culprit. We run those videos on our website in case someone recognizes the dope-skinny dude in a black hoodie with a bandanna over his face.

What we didn't know was that Lynnwood police officers make those same requests for video evidence from American Traffic Solutions Inc., the Scottsdale, Ariz., company that operates the city's red-light and school-zone enforcement cameras. That contract has been profitable for both the city and the company.

The video cameras are set to run around the clock to provide a visual record of alleged traffic violations.

Images gathered by the cameras are subject to restrictions that state lawmakers in 2005 put in place to guard privacy. That's why state law specifies the images are exempt from public records requests and can't show the faces of drivers or passengers. The law also says the camera images may not be used in court "for any purpose other than enforcement of violations" related to red-light infractions or speeding in school zones.

Emails obtained by The Herald describe multiple incidents in the past year in which officers asked for ATS video for use in investigations.

For example, in December, an officer working a hit-and-run asked ATS for the vehicle information and any available photos or video. ATS sent him video via FedEx.

We asked Lynnwood officials about the practice last week. It wasn't clear whether all the city's top cops knew that was taking place.

Police Cmdr. Chuck Steichen was at the meeting. The straight-talking cop was open about his asking ATS about a half-dozen times for videos, mostly for use in bank robbery investigations.

Steichen's read of state law is that it is OK for officers to use images snagged off ATS video feed for other types of investigations, so long as what is captured doesn't document red-light running or speeding in school zones.

That's not police using the red-light cameras for surveillance provided by a private contractor, he said, because officers don't have access to a live feed. The video system is on a constant loop that gets recorded over. Requests for ATS video, if they can be filled, can take days.

Police Chief Steve Jensen said his cops are using the cameras for investigations in ways he thinks most people in Lynnwood would support. He made the point that if a child was murdered, ATS video could theoretically help the cops find the killer. If detectives could have used that video but didn't, and a child-murderer went free, how would the community respond? Not well.

Yet in the city's years-long defense of enforcement cameras as public safety tools, we can't recall police ever mentioning their role in criminal investigations. If the eyes in the sky are helping cops crack cases, why not say that?

Police leaders say they weren't purposely keeping that close to the vest.

Regardless, it's out in the open now.

***

THERE'S MORE from Lynnwood's enforcement-camera records in our report Cops' jobs rely on traffic cams: Lynnwood police chief says department needs the cash, and A cop defends sock-puppet public relations.

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