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Police Snapshots of Suspects Stir Rights Debate in Delaware

Law: Officials defend the policy as a legal part of fighting drug dealing and street crime. Critics say it violates the privacy of innocent people.

September 22, 2002|From Associated Press

WILMINGTON, Del. — The city police department's Corner Deployment Unit is known as the "jump-out squad" for bursting out of vehicles to question and search suspects. Its officers also are known for something else: snapping photos of suspects they stop, even those they don't arrest.

City officials defend the practice as a legal and effective part of fighting drug dealing and street crime.

Critics say it violates the constitutional rights of innocent people.

In an era when surveillance cameras peer from buildings and parking lots, courts have ruled that people can't expect privacy in public places. Civil libertarians argue that police photographing people they don't arrest is a different matter.

"There's no authority to forcibly photograph someone and enter them into a database when they have committed no crime," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I'm not aware of any other municipal police department that has engaged in this type of behavior," he said.

Wilmington Mayor James Baker describes such criticism as "blithering idiocy," saying police take pains to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens while targeting people "who are killing our neighborhoods, who are killing our people."

City officials deny police are photographing individuals they believe are likely to commit crimes. Some media reports have compared the technique to "Minority Report," a recent science fiction movie in which police identify criminals before they commit crimes.

"It's not a Gestapo technique; it's not anything other than a progressive means of policing an urban environment," said police spokesman Cpl. Stephen Martelli.

Among other things, the photos can serve as proof that a person arrested for loitering received other warnings. They also are kept as "possible evidence for ongoing investigations," authorities said.

Police Chief Michael Szczerba said his department has taken photographs of suspects for years without complaints.

It's "highly improbable" that innocent people were caught up in the stops, he said.

According to city officials, 658 people were stopped and questioned from June, when the jump-out squad's "Operation Bold Eagle" began, to last week. Among them, 546 were arrested, and 708 charges were filed.

Police believe the other 112 are involved in criminal activity, even if officers didn't find enough evidence that day to arrest them.

Drewry Fennell, executive director of the ACLU's Delaware chapter, says that shouldn't matter.

"Their criminal histories are not relevant to their rights to move freely about on the street," Fennell said.

The ACLU is considering a lawsuit but, so far, no one has come forward with a formal complaint, he said.

City officials have met with representatives of the ACLU, NAACP and Urban League to hear their concerns, and another meeting is scheduled Wednesday.

In crime-troubled neighborhoods, some residents have welcomed the camera-toting police.

"I would rather have innocent people's pictures taken than innocent people shot," said Barbara Washam, who joined a rally last week to support the police.

Mayor Baker said the photo policy doesn't violate the Constitution or the U.S. Supreme Court's 1968 decision in Terry vs. Ohio that says police may stop and frisk people if they have reasonable suspicion they are engaged in criminal activity.

The state attorney general and chief federal prosecutor for Delaware agreed that Wilmington police appear to be acting within the law.

But others disagree, saying the Terry decision allows police only to briefly detain and question suspects.

"They can't use Terry as a pretext to go out and gather a photographic database of suspects," said professor Phyllis Bookspan, who teaches constitutional criminal procedure at Widener University.

City officials say officers exercise discretion.

On a recent Friday night on a street corner, the squad frisked and questioned six men while investigating suspected drug dealing.

Patrol Officer George Collins questioned one of the men, then pulled a digital camera from his pocket and asked if he could take his picture.

"Can I ask why you're doing this to me?" replied the man, who showed identification and told police he was just walking to the store.

"If you're not a criminal, you don't have anything to worry about," Collins answered. "It's for future reference."

Satisfied with the identification, Collins pocketed his camera without snapping a photo.

"He was a resident, so I gave him the option," Collins explained.

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