County residents learn about property code violations at a Syracuse Division of Code Enforcement healthy homes showcase in September 2022. Photo by Eddie Velasquez | Central Current

Code enforcement officers in Syracuse could soon use body cameras during property inspections. But the proposal, housing advocates and privacy watchdogs say, would need significant guardrails to protect residents’ privacy.

City residents will have until May 29 to submit comments on the plan, which city officials say would help code officers better document the conditions of a property during an inspection as well as assist in keeping them safe.

The city’s website indicates footage will only be collected for use by code enforcement officers. City officials did not respond to requests for comment on the need for the policy and its potential effects on code enforcement inspections.

An online presentation by the city’s Surveillance Technology Working Group indicates the footage will be used for internal documentation purposes only and that code enforcement officials say they want to follow similar policies and standards for body camera usage as Syracuse Police Department. 

City officials were unavailable to comment on the need for the policy and its potential effects on code enforcement inspections.

The plan is currently overseen by the city’s Surveillance Technology Working Group, which includes a mix of city employees and community stakeholders and is responsible for evaluating surveillance technology implementation. The group will develop a policy for the use of body cameras during code inspections once the public comment period is through.

Housing advocates and privacy experts say they have questions about the limits of the proposal, and if the footage can be shared with other government agencies.

Daniel Schwarz, who sits on the working group, said there are few programs like the one proposed in Syracuse. He said the department will have to clarify how residents can consent to the use of a body camera in their home, or if codes officers will have to seek a warrant to stay consistent with Fourth Amendment protections that shield people from unlawful searches and seizures.

“More transparency is still needed on what exactly officers are planning to do with those cameras, and in what situations they are going to be deployed,” he said. “The city has to be very careful around people’s privacy rights and also how to balance that with using it as an accountability tool for officers.”

Schwarz, a technology and privacy policy expert with the New York Civil Liberties Union, added there should be strict regulations that prohibit the department from sharing footage with other agencies and that set a clear, “very short” timeline for that footage to be retained.

He added codes need to be careful not to perpetuate years of targeted law enforcement on black and brown people in Syracuse.

“When we are talking about code enforcement we have to think about how that overlaps with nuisance investigations and how certain neighborhoods, specifically black and brown neighborhoods, are already overpoliced,” he said.

NYCLU released an analysis of police pedestrian and traffic stops by Syracuse Police Department with data from 2014 to 2020 that indicates three in four people who were stopped were people of color. The report also notes stops were heavily concentrated in neighborhoods populated mostly by people of color, who according to NYCLU make up slightly more than half of the city’s population.

Code enforcement sharing footage with other parties could have repercussions beyond the threat of discriminatory policing, Schwarz added.

“If there aren’t sufficient protections for residents, this policy could also be exploited by landlords and immigration enforcement once data is collected,” he said. “These are all questions that we need answers to from code enforcement and from the city before they move forward with this program.”

Schwarz said the department will also have to be transparent about how the footage will be stored. He is concerned that if the footage is stored with a third-party vendor, that vendor could be legally compelled to share files with law enforcement through a warrant.

 “That is oftentimes not in the control of the city agency and that third party could have full access to all that data, which would be exposed to a potential security breach,” he said.

Despite those concerns, Schwarz said the policy could, if implemented properly, serve as a potent accountability measure.

“It could ensure that the officers are doing what they’re allowed to and that they’re not violating any rules and laws,” he said.

Housing advocates in Syracuse agree the policy needs to be fleshed out to protect tenants but wondered if the resources and political will behind the proposal could instead be used to bolster code enforcement’s ranks.

Jocelyn Richards, a housing organizer with the Syracuse Tenants Union, said STU hosted a focus group with tenants Thursday where they discussed the proposed program.

“Those are resources spent that can go towards hiring another inspector, which Syracuse is really in need of,” she said. Richards noted the city has been slow to bring one- and two-family homeowners into compliance with its rental registry due to low staffing numbers.

Central Current recently reported fewer than half of eligible homes have a current rental registry certificate.

Richards noted code officers already take photos of code violations to illustrate their reports.

“We weren’t sure what a video would do to enhance the overall work of code inspectors to further document things,” she added.