In May of this year, Seattle had a sudden, shocking, despairing and unprecedented number of shootings; the local news was reporting on a new rash of deaths and injuries nearly every day. Newspaper headlines screamed: “Help: We’re Losing It Here” and “Seattle Shootings: Day of Horror, Grief in a Stricken City”. Yet Seattle still has a pretty low gun-crime rate for a city its size.
I’m no prima donna. Never once have I thought “it can’t happen here”–so far, it just hadn’t. I know people live in neighborhoods where gunshots are part of the nightly activity. All over the country. The fact that so many shootings happened in such a short space of time is what threw us, I think. It threw me, anyway. I lost friends in one of those shootings. But I’m hardly alone in my experience and I’m not naive enough to think that just because I’m in what’s considered a “safer” neighborhood, I won’t one day be one of those victims, gunned down while trying to get the hang of the Pac Man app. (I can’t. Forget it.)
Anyway, the point here is not to remind people that violence can and will happen anywhere; the point is to explore the possibility that privacy laws might sometimes go too far and interfere with criminal investigations. Most, if not all, states have those ubiquitous red-light cameras poised at intersections to catch those of us committing traffic infractions in real time (ahem). The pictures they take are pretty darn clear, I can tell you that.
It turns out, however, that Washington is one of a handful of states that bar police from accessing and using images from red-light cameras to investigate crimes. They can use these lights only for traffic enforcement. Other states have allowed police, who must first obtain warrants, access to images pertinent only to their investigation. I was surprised Washington didn’t allow the same thing. In two of the May shootings, red-light cameras either are directed right at the crime scene or are located at near the intersection where one of the innocent was killed. Police are frustrated because they might see people or cars in the vicinity of the shootings, which can aid in their investigation. People rail against privacy violation. I get it. But if the police serve a warrant for the tapes pertinent only to the crime, why the hell not let them have access? I just don’t think that a detective looking for the person responsible for shooting a young woman is going to notice a traffic infraction and issue a ticket. C’mon. There are scores of stories of criminals caught thanks to the images caught on red-light cameras. Besides, when has there ever really been an expectation of privacy in public?
I’m reminded of an incident I read about some years ago, one that challenged my commitment to my principles and made me wonder if I’d have done the same thing. In this news story, a tiny librarian (much was made of her petite stature–less than 5 feet tall–because it makes for a better story) faced down four or so Columbo-like detectives who wanted access to the computer records of a girl who had been kidnapped; they believed she “met” her captor on MySpace and they hoped to garner clues to the captor’s identity by going through her chat records.
Never underestimate the ferocity of a librarian–no matter what her size–when it comes to protecting the privacy and confidentiality of the library’s patrons. You don’t (or shouldn’t) consider a career in librarianship if you’re not ready to fight–daily–in the trenches to protect the First Amendment. Usually that means the never-ending battle to keep “controversial” books in place, but once in a while it means preventing access to customer’s computer records, without due cause. If I were the mother of that missing girl (who, sadly, was found dead, but–and this is important to remember–not because the librarian held her ground and “cost” the detectives precious time), would I be right there with the cops or would I be on the side of the librarian? I have no doubt Mama Bear would win, but Mama Bear likes to think she would locate the most reasonable of the detectives–all of whom wanted to find the child and whose intentions were good–and explain that they’d get access to the records a hell of a lot faster if they just got the warrant. It took a four-hour stand-off before they gave up and did exactly that. Forensics determined the girl had already been dead before the stand-off, but I went to bed that night wondering how I’d have handled it were I that librarian. She’s my hero for not backing down and proving that she’s committed to the protection of the patrons’ records–all she wanted was the warrant–but what if her refusal to grant access had made the difference between the girl’s life or death?
You never know how or when your ethics and principles are going to be challenged; I appreciated the story because it made me really think about what I’d do in the same situation. The answer: I really don’t know.