(City map of camera/communication system – click for larger, zoomable view)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
While installation of 30 federally funded, Seattle Police-run cameras continues – with 9 up as of the end of last week, according to SPD – who will operate them and who will have access to them is not yet decided.
That’s according to SPD’s Special Operations Bureau commander, Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh, who we interviewed late Friday.
We reported on several key points of the conversation hours after it concluded, in our third report about the cameras; our first one appeared here last Tuesday, with a bit of information about the previously unannounced, unreported installations, after a first round of research followed WSB readers’inquiries.
Then Thursday, our second report included details of the project gleaned from the video archive of a little-noticed City Council committee briefing and vote back in May.
As shown in our Friday coverage, we confirmed that the six cameras we had seen along West Seattle’s waterfront boulevards are only half of the 12 planned for West Seattle; the southernmost camera is also already up, over the southbound RapidRide bus stop at the Fauntleroy ferry dock.
Ahead, full details from our conversation with Assistant Chief McDonagh, which we recorded on video and have excerpted with links to specific points in the conversation:
We spoke with McDonagh in a room you’ve seen on TV many times – a big briefing room on the lower level of the department’s downtown headquarters. They had offered one-on-one interviews by appointment, so while no other media were present, three people from SPD observed, including Det. Monty Moss, who also is working on the project, and Det. Jeff Kappel from media relations/public affairs. As you’ll see if you follow any of the video links, the map in the photo atop this story sat on a chair next to Assistant Chief McDonagh as we spoke.
The system is the first of its kind, he said, so far as he knows – other ports have cameras, but none have a “system with this capability.”
“I don’t call it a surveillance camera – surveillance to me implies someone is sitting there watching it all the time. These are just cameras watching a general area,” McDonagh said. (video link)
“There are about 9 up right now, there’s going to be 30 cameras total … This project is designed as a port-security measure, monitoring the waterways in and around Seattle … all the way up from Shoreline down around to Fauntleroy.” (video link)
He noted they are fairly widely spaced, “and the reason for that is, they’re not designed to be looking at every little bit (but) to provide situational awareness generally throughout the area so that we can monitor things that are happening around our area.” However, the sites were chosen, he said, to provide “overlapping views.” It’s not just out onto the salt water; he says the Ballard Locks and Lake Union are included in the camera views.
“The cameras are actually a small part of the entire …’wireless mesh system,’ that’s going to improve communication … and a couple of the venues have cameras attached to that. The cameras would be rolling 24 hours a day; we would not be assigning someone to monitor them 24 hours a day … The idea is, if there is an incident, and the first responders are responding into a venue, they would eventually be able to tap into those computers and see it (for) situational awareness.” (video link)
He described a potential scenario such as a report of someone in trouble on the water off Alki Point, and even as emergency personnel headed that way, they would be able to “tap into” this system and look to see if a boat was visible or not.
Under a “draft policy,” the video would be kept for 30 days, he says, and “if no video evidence has been recovered, then it would overwrite after 30 days.” (video link)
What agencies will have access? Besides the “homeland-security nexus,” he mentioned SDOT and Seattle Fire as examples of other departments that would have access — at least, he said, “That’s the goal” – as well as the U.S. Coast Guard. (video link) A “steering committee” (we asked its official name; he said it didn’t have one) will decide who gets access.
Regarding privacy concerns, McDonagh says, “I think we’ve come up with a pretty good plan to allow for security efforts – whether that’s Homeland Security efforts or criminal enterprise – or crime that just happens” – at this point, he offers a hypothetical case, say a purse snatching on Alki, and investigators just happen to find evidence on the video – (they) would hopefully be able to identify, or exclude a subject, and use that information to go forward with court prosecution.”
How would they work? He mentions the ability to pan/tilt/zoom, “but only a few people would have that capability, so the officer on the street would just have the ability to view it.” (video link) Asked later who would have that capability, McDonagh says the “steering committee” will decide that, though they have some “outlines,” on which he couldn’t comment. Its members, he said, are all city reps appointed by their respective department heads; we are requesting the list of who they are. He also said that while the grant paid for the equipment, no additional personnel was funded – it will be operated with personnel already working for the respective departments.
He said the system does not have “facial-recognition” capability. Infrared? “Not that I’m aware of.” (video link)
What does SPD hope this will allow them to do, that they can’t do now? “On the homeland-security front, monitor those people who are out for nefarious acts, monitor their behaviors … Hopefully someone will call immediately, but if we get a call after the fact, we can check (the video) … There’s a preventive effect, cameras do have a preventive effect,” and there’s the potential use for evidence of crimes that do occur.
Though City Councilmembers gave their approval to the grant last May, McDonagh says they have been working on a relatively short timeline to get the system into place; it was supposed to be finished by December 31st, but, he says, they “got an extension” and now are shooting for March 31st. 810 “Whether the system is up and running by then will be dependent on whether we have final decisions from the steering committee.”
Asked if community meetings were planned to discuss the system and answer questions, McDonagh said, “We don’t have any currently proposed,” though he expected a City Council update as well as an SPD Blotter post. (video link)
Didn’t anyone consider giving the community a heads-up? “Probably it would have been a good idea,” McDonagh acknowledged, “(but) at the Public Safety (committee) meeting (last May) we did discuss that these cameras will have masking up, quite a bit of masking – when they turn toward a residential area, the only thing they will see is a black box, or, like, half a screen. The idea is to be able to watch the shoreline and the waterways, not private residences.”
After our first reports, crews were reported to have reoriented a few of the cameras which had been facing inland rather than out to sea: (video link) “They’re working pretty hard trying to put the cameras up quickly … Honestly, I expect that on a project of this magnitude. We have checks and balances in place, and later on, if it wasn’t caught now, it would have been caught later.” Asked why some of the cameras were on poles on the inland side of the street, he said he didn’t have a “direct answer” but “I’m assuming it was because it was the best place to put the camera, to access power, or …”
He appreciates the privacy concerns, he insisted: “In our job, we have to balance privacy concerns with public safety concerns all the time, and before we even (moved) forward with this project, when we started talking about it, we had to figure out a way to make sure the cameras weren’t used to watch somebody in their house or whatever and I think with the masking capability of this, (we’ll be able to) do that.” (video link)
However, he added, “looking down the shoreline, we’re looking down the distance, and if farther down the road you can see that there are homes there, etc., that might be … but it’s not designed to look into people’s residences at all.”
How long will the cameras be up? “Until we decide we don’t want them up there any more” – the grant is not infinite, but the city becomes the “steward” of the system even after it expires.
The installations that do not have cameras will be used to transmit data – he used the example of someone having a heart attack and having the data being transmitted to the hospital over the new system, as well as noting that it would help them in what are currently “dead spots” for communication technology. (video link)
A possible Metro use in part of the downtown corridor was brought up at that point by Det. Moss, from the sidelines. (We’ll be following up with Metro to ask about that.)
Assistant Chief McDonagh had mentioned a City Council update would likely be scheduled. The committee that has jurisdiction meets this Wednesday; though this is not on its agenda, a different surveillance technology – the so-called “drone” aircraft – is. We’ll be following up with the committee members, too, regarding this system.
ADDED 6:09 PM: The SPD Blotter post mentioned as forthcoming during our interview has gone live as of late today – see it here. It includes a video clip in which Det. Moss demonstrates the privacy masking mentioned above.