If you’re going to Portland City Hall anytime soon, be careful about what you do and say, because someone may be watching – and listening.
Video cameras have been added to several areas throughout City Hall in recent months, including in hallways and some offices. Those cameras can record audio as well as video, which is streamed to the city’s police headquarters. Signs have been posted in recent weeks alerting visitors that the building is under 24-hour surveillance.
Placing surveillance cameras in public buildings and private businesses is nothing new, but monitoring audio in a city building is, said Mike Major, owner of Cunningham Security in Yarmouth.
Major said his company has installed about 30 to 40 video systems for municipalities in the past 12 years, but he has never installed audio monitoring other than in a police interviewing or booking room.
Systems that record audio are more common in businesses, such as large day-care centers that may run into issues with children and concerned parents, he said.
“I find it highly unusual for a municipality to take this step, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do it,” Major said. “I think this one is definitely outside the box.”
City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said that posting signs disclosing the presence of the surveillance equipment makes it legal for the city to record video and audio of people in the building. It would be illegal under Maine law for a third party such as the city to make an audio recording of a conversation without the other party’s knowledge.
Despite the signs, the new system is raising privacy concerns for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
Zachary Heiden, the group’s legal director, said cameras do not prevent or reduce crime and help solve crimes only when the images receive widespread publicity. Instead, constant surveillance only ends up changing the behavior of otherwise law-abiding citizens, Heiden said.
“This practice is infringing on their freedom,” he said. “People should be able to have a conversation with other people with whom they are associated without being monitored, especially in a public place and when they’ve done nothing wrong.”
Audio surveillance in non law-enforcement buildings appears to be rare in Maine.
City halls in Bangor and Augusta do not have security cameras. Lewiston and South Portland have cameras recording video of their building entrances, among other areas, but they do not capture audio.
The issue has been discussed repeatedly at the State House in Augusta, said Russel Gauvin, chief of the Capitol Police. He said there are a “couple hundred” video cameras throughout the Augusta state campus, but the vast majority do not record audio. The only ones that record audio and video are the cameras used to record and broadcast meetings in hearing rooms.
Other cameras monitoring the hallways and entrances record only video, he said. When new cameras are added to the campus, lawmakers usually raise questions about whether their conversations might be taped when they’re outside of the hearing rooms, he said.
“We had to reassure them – the politicians – that they were video only,” Gauvin said. “Once they find out there is no audio, they’re not concerned about it.”
Grondin would not provide specifics about the city’s new system, such as how it is monitored and used, because she didn’t want to reveal the city’s security plans. She said the cameras were installed late last year and the signs were put up in recent weeks.
According to a Sept. 1 memo to councilors, City Manager Jon Jennings said the cameras are part of his efforts to increase security at City Hall. The cameras also are equipped with WiFi.
The memo came shortly after City Hall was locked down when a man began acting erratically and claimed to have a machete, which turned out not to be the case, and months after a 2015 mass shooting in California prompted local officials to re-evaluate security measures.
“As always, the safety of each and every person who works for the city is my highest priority,” Jennings wrote in his memo to the council.
Grondin said the project cost nearly $9,500, but she would not disclose how many cameras were installed and in which areas. She declined to describe when audio was recorded in non-emergency situations.
Grondin said the video and audio streams are monitored and archived at the police station, but she would not disclose how often they are monitored in real time.
“Audio is generally not activated during normal day-to-day operations,” she said, later adding that it sometimes is monitored. “It can be activated in the event of a security incident,” she said.
Grondin said the city’s largest employee union – the City Employment Benefits Association, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1373 – questioned why the cameras were being installed and was apparently satisfied when told they were intended to increase security.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: