Erie County Legislature Chairman John J. Mills on Wednesday said legislators will take up the issue of some county-owned cellphone surveillance and tracking devices that have been in use by the Sheriff’s Office since 2008.
Whether that falls short of what Legislator Patrick B. Burke asked for Tuesday is still to be determined. The Buffalo Democrat said he was alarmed by the prospect of the Sheriff’s Office being in possession of equipment that allows it to intercept information from multiple cellular devices within a one-mile radius. He called on Mills to convene a public hearing to determine how the Sheriff’s Office has been using the equipment and whether there are safeguards in place to ensure the devices are not being misused.
Mills said through a spokeswoman Wednesday that Burke’s request will be taken up next Thursday in the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, where it can be discussed in open session.
“Legislators will have an opportunity to raise any concerns or ask questions they may have. The clerk of the Legislature will make the Sheriff’s Office aware of the request and invite them to committee,” added Mills, a Republican from Orchard Park.
The spy equipment was requested in August 2008 by the county’s Department of Emergency Services under then-County Executive Chris Collins’ administration. Subsequently, the Legislature unanimously authorized the release of a $283,043 terrorism prevention grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to pay for the devices.
In a letter responding to Burke’s call for a public hearing, Legislator Edward A. Rath III said Wednesday that he supports the idea of a dialog to address Burke’s concerns. However, Rath – an Amherst Republican who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee – also expressed confidence that the surveillance equipment is being used appropriately by the Sheriff’s Office.
“When presented to us in 2008, we were told the approved equipment would be used to locate fugitives, armed and dangerous criminals, child abductors and lost or suicidal subjects within a timely manner to ensure officer and public safety,” Rath said.
Burke remained skeptical Wednesday. “Well, catching bad guys is not a good enough excuse to violate the Fourth Amendment. You should have to have a warrant if you’re going to spy on someone’s personal information,” he said.
“At this point, the Sheriff’s Office is still not willing to admit that they even have this equipment, that they’ve purchased it, how they’re using it, what safeguards have been put into place to prevent abuse,” he said, insisting that it was not a partisan issue.