While the Seattle Police surveillance cameras first noticed by WSB readers two months ago are often referred to as the “Alki cameras” – the system includes other neighborhoods north from here, as far north as Ballard. And that’s why tonight, SPD’s second questions/answers meeting – following up the one we covered last Tuesday on Alki – is scheduled for the Belltown Community Center (415 Bell Street; map), 7 pm.
SPD reiterated last week that there would be others, but none have been announced yet. So thus far the public discussion, which started three weeks after media coverage, has consisted of:
*Public Safety, Civil Rights, Technology Committee briefing February 20th (WSB coverage here)
*Alki Community Council briefing February 21st (WSB coverage here)
*Alki Bathhouse meeting March 12th (WSB coverage here)
The system is the result of a Homeland Security grant sought by the city and originally approved by the Public Safety Committee last year (as reported here January 31st) – described at the time only as a “port security” system, without any mention of cameras in residential/recreational areas such as Alki.
Yesterday, the full City Council approved a new set of city rules that among other things, they say, will prevent that from happening in the future – as co-sponsor Councilmember Nick Licata put it, the controversial camera-equipped “drones” were also part of a grant that the council apparently approved two years before they suddenly turned up.
Co-sponsor Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, gave the topline description: “The legislation basically requires all city departments to obtain City Council approval prior to acquiring surveillance equipment” as well as Council approval for how the equipment, and the data it gathers, will be managed. It has been said that this will cover the Alki-to-Ballard cameras, even though most of them have been installed, with the “protocols” to be proposed for that system and any other surveillance equipment in place “no later than 30 days after this takes effect.”
The bill also requires “public outreach conducted in each community” where surveillance equipment would be installed.
Harrell also noted that the bill had been changed between committee discussion and vote two weeks ago and yesterday’s full Council vote.
Phil Mocek, a local activist who has been closely covering the surveillance-camera situation and related issues, points out on his website that major changes were reviewed at yesterday morning’s Council briefing meeting, hours before the afternoon vote. As he writes, and as can be seen in Seattle Channel video of the briefing meeting, Harrell mentioned SPD leadership sending the council a letter last Friday expressing a concern about “somehow … inhibiting Seattle Police ability to use surveillance equipment in certain criminal investigations on a temporary basis.” Harrell said a paragraph regarding that exemption was “already in the bill” but that they added further language SPD wanted. Licata expressed concern “about how large a loophole it was”; Harrell at that point noted more changes were made at the Seattle Police Department’s request. Licata said his concern was the definition of “criminal investigation” and whether a broad definition would open everyone to surveillance. Harrell said he didn’t think there was “ambiguity” in the definition. There was talk of maybe holding the bill – but in the end, they didn’t.
The version now online includes this paragraph:
Notwithstanding the provisions of this Chapter, City departments may acquire or use surveillance equipment that is used on a temporary basis for the purpose of a criminal investigation supported by reasonable suspicion, or pursuant to a lawfully issued search warrant, or under exigent circumstances as defined in case law. This exemption from the provisions of this ordinance does not apply to surveillance cameras mounted on drones or other unmanned aircraft.
Back to the cameras installed along West Seattle’s shores – including Harbor and Alki Avenues, Beach Drive, and Fauntleroy Way near the ferry dock, with one planned for Admiral (map) – the next steps to activation remain unclear; Mayor McGinn first told WSB on February 11th: “The system will not be operated until a thorough public vetting of the system has been completed and the public has provided input.” That “vetting” continues with the Belltown meeting tonight.