UPDATE: On the afternoon of Feb. 23, Asheville’s interim police chief, Steve Belcher, discussed the surveillance equipment with CPP. “This is just routine stuff,” he said. “It’s covert body mics for doing undercover drug buys. We already have some in use; this is to replace some of those. In court, the best evidence we have sometimes is recordings of the incident.”

ASHEVILLE — At its Feb. 24 meeting, City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to use drug-seizure funds to buy “covert surveillance equipment” for the Asheville Police Department, according to a city staff report.

The move would cost the city nothing, at least initially. But it comes on the heels of the council adopting guidelines for how the police department handles recorded records and a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina that sounded an alarm about expanding surveillance practices by law enforcement.

The staff report, from Interim Chief of Police Steve Belcher, was prepared by Deputy Chief Wade Wood. It recommends using $14,000 worth of the state’s seized illegal-drug profits “to fund the purchase of covert surveillance equipment” that would be used to “secure evidence of criminal activities related primarily to drug sales and prostitution.”

The report, which can be read below, doesn’t specify what the gear is, other than noting it is “covert audio/video equipment.”

Carolina Public Press left messages Saturday with city Public Information Officer Dawa Hitch asking for details about the equipment, and we will provide updates on any new information about the matter.

At its last meeting, on Feb. 10, Asheville City Council unanimously approved a resolution to accept new guidelines from the state Department of Cultural Resources on how long law enforcement should retain recordings from audio and video devices.

That vote occurred in the midst of an ongoing legal challenge by the Asheville Citizen-Times, which is seeking the release of decades of videos of public gatherings that were recorded by the APD.

Earlier this month, the ACLU of North Carolina issued a report, Unwarranted: The State of Surveillance in North Carolina, that decried law enforcement’s increasing use of surveillance technologies including automatic license plate readers, unmanned aircraft, GPS cell phone tracking and body-worn cameras.

According to documents obtained by the ACLU through public records requests, WNC law agencies that have used cell phone tracking include the Asheville Police Department and the sheriff offices of Avery, Buncombe and Transylvania counties.

Agencies across the state, the ACLU asserted in its report, “are making up the rules as they go along without any uniform standard policy or set of rules that would prevent these technologies from being abused to invade North Carolinians’ privacy.”

The Asheville staff report asserted that the surveillance equipment would “increase officer and public safety.”

For the record: Asheville city staff report on purchasing police surveillance equipment

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Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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