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Videos of Caltrain Suicides Could be Made Public

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Agency has not yet decided whether to install outward-facing cameras on trains

Updated July 8, 2011 at 12:18 p.m.

The decision to outfit commuter trains with cameras is on hold while Caltrain figures out whether the recordings — including track fatalities — would be a matter of public record.

So far, 10 pedestrians have been hit and killed by Caltrain this year. There were 11 fatalities on the track last year.

Caltrain Executive Director Michael Scanlon is weighing whether or not to to contract with Railhead Corp. to install outward-facing cameras on the front and back of trains. The agency's board authorized the executive director to award the $1.5 million contract in a meeting Thursday morning. Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said Scanlon will consult with lawyers to determine if the tapes recorded on the state-funded rail line would be accessible to the public.

“We want to look at … whether the video recordings will be public record,” Dunn said. “We need to do some research and talk to our legal council to determine what our next steps will be.”

Dunn would not say if the determination of whether the videos are public record would affect Scanlon's decision.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said videos recorded by a state-funded agency would constitute public record, but that footage of a suicide might be withheld because of a concern for public safety.

“It's the same argument that's made about videos of people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge,” Scheer said. “Whether it would ultimately prevail is unclear. It depends on the facts and what the judge thinks.”

Scheer said Caltrain could make a defensible claim because videos of suicides, once released, could circulate widely. 

The recordings would be “freely usable on the Internet, television, Facebook,” Scheer said. “It could create an incentive for people who are inclined to commit suicide to go and kill themselves.”

Dunn said in an email that Caltrain was also concerned about whether releasing the videos would violate security protocols outlined by the state Office of Homeland Security.

“We do not release maps of the right of way to the public and we do not allow people to take photos inside our maintenance facilities,” Dunn wrote. “We would not want to release video of our right of way for the same reason.”

Dunn said there is no timetable for Scanlon's decision.

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