City police: Spycams in the workplace ‘rare’

Charlottesville’s use of hidden cameras to observe employees suspected of misconduct is rare, but controversial. File photo Charlottesville’s use of hidden cameras to observe employees suspected of misconduct is rare, but controversial. File photo

Who is the city spying on? Charlottesville’s use of hidden cameras to monitor city employees became news in the recent case of Charlottesville Fire Department mechanic J.R. Harris, who was fired after city police put a camera in his office to find the perp who hid a bottle alleged to be alcohol in his desk. Harris, a teetotaler, was reinstated to his job (see p. 16 for new details) and the spycam never provided evidence of who actually put the bottle there, but it did raise questions about the city’s use of those devices.

Harris appealed his firing at a February 23 hearing, where Charlottesville Police Lieutenant Blaine Cosgro testified that he’d installed the hidden camera in Harris’ office, and that city police had secretly recorded city employees 10 to 12 times over the past decade.

C-VILLE submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Charlottesville Police, and was told that records pertaining to Harris were exempt because it was a personnel matter.

“We have not located any records related to any other occasions when the police assisted the city with installing cameras for the purposes of monitoring employee conduct, and to our knowledge, no such records exist,” said Lieutenant Cheryl Sandridge in an e-mail.

Police Chief Tim Longo declined to comment on specific cases in which spycams had been used, but said it’s “very, very rare.” At times, city police have been called upon to assist other departments in the investigation of workplace misconduct—either to confirm or dispel it—when such use is “lawful and appropriate,” said Longo.

Deputy City Attorney Allyson Davies said the city’s policy is to follow all applicable federal, state and local laws when surveilling employees to ensure workplace and citizen safety, and she points to a 2014 U.S. District Court case from the Western District of Virginia. Judge Glen Conrad ruled that an employer’s search of an employee’s workplace is held to a lower standard than the probable cause required for criminal cases, and that safety is an important consideration.

In Harris’ case, from a week’s worth of surveillance, a couple of minutes of grainy video showed him taking something from his desk and removing it, which his supervisors said was proof he knew the alleged bottle of alcohol was there. Harris contended he was getting rid of it so no one else would try to hide booze in his office.

Said Longo, “If an image is captured that is related to the alleged misconduct, that image or images would be retained as evidence and placed with other documents and evidentiary items associated with the case. Any and all other images captured would not be retained.”

The Rutherford Institute’s John Whitehead found the use of snippets troubling, and asked, “If you edit it, how do you know you’ve seen the whole story?”

While employees are warned that their workplaces can be searched for drugs or alcohol, the city has no policy on monitoring by hidden camera. That’s a problem for Whitehead, particularly if employees have an expectation of privacy in their workplace. “The city should definitely have a policy on the use of spycams,” he said.

Mayor Satyendra Huja also thinks there should be a policy, but isn’t bothered by the use of cameras to monitor employees. “I think it’s a matter of investigating complaints to see if there are non-work activities going on,” he said.

Spycam use is unlikely to come before City Council, because, said Huja, “It’s a personnel matter.”