Thursday February 23, 2012

A state judge late Wednesday ordered the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Police Department to stop taping conversations in their new $12.5 million headquarters, following complaints from officers they were being secretly recorded for at least a year.

Hampshire Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Rup issued the preliminary injunction against the university in a class action lawsuit brought by police officers claiming UMass Amherst violated the state wiretap statute and their civil rights by the surreptitious taping.

"Citizens and taxpayers who pay for the university don't expect state actors to countenance a system that violates state law and the constitutional rights of its citizens," said Thomas A. Kenefick III, who represents the officers.

The department moved into the 27,000-square-foot facility on Pleasant Street last April. In a press release issued at the building's ribbon cutting, UMass Amherst Police Chief Johnny C. Whitehead touted the new facility's high-tech improvements, including the security camera network.

That network is at the core of the officer's suit, according to the complaint filed earlier this month.

At least 13 of 42 video surveillance cameras within the facility have audio capability, including a play-back function, and have been in use since the department's 81 employees moved into the building last year, the complaint states.


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The devices are "extremely sensitive" and "one device, placed outside a restroom, could actually pick up conversation and sound occurring inside the restroom," the complaint states.

Officers had numerous "private conversations of a personal nature within the range of interception of the audio devices," which can be accessed via the Internet, the complaint states.

The officers claim university and police officials knew or should have known that the cameras would be able to record audio, but never informed employees.

Last month, Officer Mark Schlosser learned for the first time that the cameras had an audio function, the complaint states.

Deputy Chief Patrick T. Archbald denied police brass knew about the audio function, according to the complaint.

"No one within the [UMass-Amherst Police Department] requested in the bid specifications or had prior knowledge that these cameras were enabled for audio," Archbald said in memo he issued to employees on Jan. 24, 2012.

While Archbald said the audio function was immediately turned off, Kenefick said it is unclear whether the video and audio components of the cameras can be separated.

Archbald did not respond to a voice mail message left at his office Wednesday night. UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski also did not immediately respond to messages left on his home and cell phones.

Also named in the complaint was the university's board of trustees, President Robert L. Caret, Deputy Police Chief Archbald and former chief Barbara O'Connor, who left the department in 2009.

The building's construction was managed by the UMass Building Authority. In a press release issued last year by the university, UMass Trustee Henry Thomas III said: "This new center for public safety is a model for other schools. It gives students, faculty and members of the community peace of mind that any situation can be handled safely and securely."

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (necir-bu.org) is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University.