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Privacy vs. Protection: Should police have 24/7 access to school security cameras?

As school security issues are debated, parents are finding themselves in the middle of a privacy versus protection debate when it comes to their children. (WWMT/Denise Schermerhorn)

Should police have access to live security cameras in local schools? The Newschannel3 I-team has found it's happening here in Michigan. While police say it could help them respond to an active shooter situation, others say it violates privacy.

Roseville Police Chief James Berlin can tap into Roseville High School’s 56 security cameras whenever he needs to from the Roseville Police Department headquarters.

“It's a great tool, it's been very helpful to us through the years,” said Berlin. “Our high school is massive and by being able to see where the incident is taking place and directing the officers to that location, just speeds the response."

The Roseville Police Department has had the system in place for more than a decade but this technology isn't in every school district.

“I was shocked that this was not the norm,” said Berlin. “I thought that it was so I don't know why other areas of the state are doing this. Not to have this technology in place and available, I just don't understand it.”

School surveillance systems like the one at Roseville are expanding. In Macomb County, a massive monitor at the county’s emergency management headquarters Communications and Technology Center (COMTEC) can tap into security cameras from 21 school districts from across the county.

“We’re here to be helpful, that's all we're looking to do and light up that school because it helps us,” said Mark Hackel, Macomb County executive. “It's important because we're helping the kids, the staff, the teachers and those that are in that environment but also law enforcement."

COMTEC’s system has 54 monitors and can also tap into traffic cameras from across the county.

Hackel, a former sheriff who developed COMTEC, says his system can be critical in an active shooter situation.

“This technology now, it only takes us minutes to lock into the school and light up all those cameras and see how many active shooters there are,” said Hackel.

While it can be helpful, there are concerns.

“Police surveillance is something you expect in a jail house. It shouldn't be in a school house,” said Michael Steinberg with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

“My concern is that we're conditioning children that a surveillance society is okay. They're going to read about Big Brother and George Orwell’s 1984 and wonder what's wrong with it,” he said.

“The Big Brother-thing is two-fold,” counters Hackel. “We don't sit and monitor schools all day watching kids play basketball in gym or swim meets. We only light it up when there's an incident or if we're told we're going to be responding to something."

“It’s clear that surveillance doesn't deter these kinds of things. For example, Columbine had surveillance cameras,” said Steinberg.

While there are privacy concerns, police say school surveillance systems can only help should a Columbine or Parkland happen again.

“Not to have this technology in place and available, I just don't understand it,” Berlin said.

The I-Team surveyed several school districts to see if they allow police to tap into their school surveillance systems. Here’s the response we got:

Kalamazoo County

  • Kalamazoo Public Schools: "If police needed access to something on camera and required it for an investigation, we would likely provide it. We would be required to provide it with a warrant, " said Alex Lee with Kalamazoo Public Schools.
  • Portage Public Schools: “Our Community Resource Officers (we have 2 Resource Officers) have access to our security cameras from their offices. The District has the ability to allow the Portage Department of Public Safety to access to our security camera system in an emergency, but it is not something that they are able to monitor on a daily basis,” said Michelle Karpinski with Portage Public Schools.
  • Comstock Public Schools: no response to Newschannel3 Inquiry.
  • Vicksburg Schools: “In Vicksburg, the School Resource Officer (a Vicksburg Police Department officer) has full access to the cameras.” said Superintendent Charles Glaes.

Calhoun County

  • Marshall Public Schools: “Yes, we have a protocol agreement within our Safety Operations Plan that allows police officers from the Marshall Police Department and Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department to tap into our building camera system and view live what is happening in the buildings and on school grounds. The agreement only allows them access when we are under an emergency school safety alert,” said Dr. Randy Davis.
  • Battle Creek and Lakeview Public Schools: Battle Creek Police Chief James Blocker tells the I-team that school resource officers can access the surveillance video but the police department does not have 24/7 access to school surveillance cameras.

Van Buren County

  • Paw Paw Public Schools: no response to Newschannel3 Inquiry.
  • Mattawan Public Schools: no response to Newschannel3 Inquiry.

St. Joseph County

  • Centreville Public Schools: “Centreville does have that capability with our sheriff's department and they could access our cameras if necessary.” said Jane Rumsey, Centreville Schools.
  • Sturgis Public Schools: no response to Newschannel3 Inquiry.

Allegan County

  • Allegan Public Schools: no response to Newschannel3 Inquiry.
  • Otsego Public Schools: “Police do not currently have real-time access to our cameras. It is something we've talked about, though,” said Holly McCaw with Otsego Public Schools.

Barry County

  • Hastings Area Schools: no response to Newschannel3 Inquiry.
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