This is bound to get messy.
A former police officer and two current officers are suing a their police department after they found out internal affairs had placed hidden cameras to record audio and video in the women’s locker room. The cameras were used to solve the mystery of who was stealing from lockers. The culprit was another female police officer. Michigan law forbids private recording. However, it also allows an exception for police as long as it is “in the performance of the officer's duties.” In this note we review the case, which was filed in district court.
Someone kept stealing “money and property” from women’s lockers at the Battle Creek Police Department. Complaints about the theft made their way up to the head of Internal Affairs (IA), the section responsible for investigating police misconduct. Maria Alonso, the head of IA, with approval from the chief of police, installed a camera and an audio recording device in the women’s locker room to catch the thief. The full civil complaint is here.
Sometime in early January 2013, the devices were installed and on January 16 the camera recorded a police officer, Laura Gillespie, a 24-year veteran of the department, going through other officers’ lockers. At least two videos of this are said to exist, though the department will not say if there are more or what else was recorded.
How the Recordings Were Discovered
It was not until a disciplinary hearing for Gillespie, one week later, that it was revealed that the locker room had cameras. The video “was intentionally shown on a large projection screen” the plaintiffs say. It showed the Gillespsie going through two open lockers. Then the video shows her taking off all of her clothes and changing into street clothes. Gillespie says she started crying and was “extremely embarrassed” while the video played at the hearing. On March 18, 2013, she was fired.
Complete Recordings Kept Secret
Another female officer, Jennifer McCaughna, also a 24-year veteran of the department and plaintiff in the case, filed a public information request to get access to any videos that may have been recorded and was denied. The police department also won’t reveal any parameters of the surveillance, like retention time and how often they were recording.
Why the Cops Are Suing
Gillespie, the accused thief, and the two officers filed suit last week because they believe they had an expectation of privacy in the women’s locker room that was violated when the camera and audio recorder were installed. They also argue that it violated several Michigan statutes against secret recordings and recording people unclothed. They also say it violated the 4th Amendment and Federal wiretapping laws and are asking for damages and attorney’s fees.
The complaint says the police department tried to justify its actions by referencing a state exception to video recording that allows police to secretly record people in “in the performance of the officer's duties.” The plaintiffs argue this exemption saying it does not apply if it means it will violate the 4th Amendment.
This case seems like it could cross into new territory because it deals with an Internal Affairs section investigating its own officers. Cameras are often prohibited in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, but what if that place is where a crime regularly occurs? Some would argue that cameras could be placed in a locker room in this type of situation as long as there is some type of video warning, which could possibly deter a crime like stealing money out of lockers while keeping the people in the locker room informed that cameras were present. If a judge interprets the "line of duty" exemption broadly, it could mean IA was justified making this a case where bathroom cameras are upheld. If not, it will be another case to show that regardless of if they catch crime or not, bathroom cameras may always be socially unacceptable.