By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Since our first report Tuesday on the surveillance cameras that have turned up from Harbor Avenue to Beach Drive – we’ve learned more information about them, while other questions remain.
To recap, if you missed our first story:
WSB readers started noticing the cameras last weekend. We have counted six installed on utility and streetlight poles, with wireless transmitting equipment above them: On the inland side of Harbor Avenue near Salty’s and Seacrest, on the water side at Duwamish Head, on the inland side of Alki Avenue by the Shoremont Apartments (photo above), on the water side by the Alki Statue of Liberty Plaza, and on the water side at the end of Constellation Park/Richey Viewpoint, at 63rd SW and Beach Drive.
The cameras are part of a Seattle Police-led, federally funded project approved by the City Council last spring, though the discussion at City Hall mentioned only “port security,” not specific locations or numbers, and questions are circulating now regarding an online mention that the project is likely to expand far beyond “port security.”
Last spring’s discussion of the project was at the May 2, 2012, meeting of the Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee, with its chair, Councilmember Bruce Harrell, and member Councilmember Mike O’Brien present.
The agenda item’s description gave no hint to impending surveillance cameras in a recreational/residential area:
Relating to security from terrorism; authorizing the City to partner with the Port of Tacoma to receive financial assistance from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office for State and Local Government Coordination and Prep aredness under the Port Security Grant Program for Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2008 (PSGP FFY ’08), authorizing an application for allocation of funds under that agreement, increasing appropriations to the Police Department in the 2012 Budget, and ratifying and confirming prior acts; all by a three-fourths vote of the City Council.
The discussion is archived on Seattle Channel video – go to that page and choose the agenda item at right for a direct link, or, in the embedded clip below, move the play bar to 76 minutes in:
The ordinance itself – approved unanimously by the City Council later – doesn’t mention cameras, but we’ve viewed the meeting video, and here’s what was said by the Seattle Police Department briefers.
The department was said to be getting a $5 million Homeland Security grant for which it had applied, for a “wireless mesh network surveillance security type of system that will basically keep an eye on the port facilities within the Port of Seattle region.” While the Ports of Tacoma and Everett were described as partners, the system was discussed in Seattle terms only, and SPD’s partners here were listed as the Seattle Fire Department and U.S. Coast Guard.
Councilmember Harrell mentioned that he had already been briefed on the project, so he was asking questions just so anyone at (or watching) the meeting could obtain some information. By “port facilities,” he asked the briefers to confirm, they meant “specifically the water.” Yes, they said, elaborating that it would be “all encompassing from the shoreline.”
“What kind of things are we worried about?” asked Councilmember Harrell.
The reply: “The threat of importing chemical, radiological, nuclear, explosive materials into a port is a very real thing.” This system would help “monitor the shoreline when heightened threat levels come up … The idea here was to strategically place video cameras around the waterfront area that monitor the shoreline and the waterway, that’s the biggest bulk of this … that information can not only be fed to first responders, but can also be sent back to department operation centers.” That, SPD said, would include the USCG monitoring vessel traffic coming into Elliott Bay.
It was also mentioned that Sound Transit and Metro Transit were “looking at” this system, since SPD said it “is able to carry quite a bit of bandwidth and they felt they could expand their system and tie into ours.”
No questions were asked about specific locations or exactly how the cameras would be used. Harrell and O’Brien both approved the ordinance; five days later, the full Council approved it in a unanimous 9-0 vote.
The information about this meeting came to us from the office of Councilmember Nick Licata, who is also a member of the Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee, but was not present for the May 2nd meeting, though he was part of the unanimous approval vote on May 7th (once a council committee approves something, it’s not unusual for quick final action)
Licata’s staff e-mailed to let us know that they are following up with Seattle Police on some questions in turn brought to their attention by a local privacy advocate whose inquiry specifically calls out a section of an online article we linked in our first report Tuesday – quoting a Seattle Fire Department official, Lenny Roberts, as saying this will be part of a citywide network of cameras:
“… For example, take the Homeland Security/Port of Seattle Security Project. We will have surveillance cameras all along the waterfront from the ship canal to Harbor Island (bulk fuel storage) to Alki Point. During any marine or waterfront incident, these cameras can be aimed, and any view within the cameras’ range can be streamed to the incident command post. This can provide a bird’s eye view perspective as well as allow seeing three sides of the incident.
Eventually the cameras will extend throughout downtown and along the Interstate 5 corridor.
The current camera systems are part of transit and traffic control. These additional cameras will
be part of an enhanced public safety strategy. Some cameras will also have infrared capability,
which can help locate heat sources and people through smoke and darkness.”
As noted in a WSB comment, more details are being pursued via a Freedom of Information Act request, which seeks to make all available documentation public.
Meantime, we have asked Mayor McGinn‘s office multiple times for the mayor’s comment on these cameras and their planned use. So far, no comment. Our followups on this will continue.