New Seattle Police cameras: Q/A with the assistant chief in charge

(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.

29 Replies to "New Seattle Police cameras: Q/A with the assistant chief in charge"

  • Heath February 4, 2013 (4:42 pm)

    Thank you for the continued follow up. You are the best.

  • Guy February 4, 2013 (4:55 pm)

    Thanks for going through all of this to keep us informed. Great job!! I’m glad I didn’t have to interview those guys.

  • Tuesday February 4, 2013 (5:14 pm)

    “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,” I think this answers the question “Do they think we are idiots?” The answer apparently is YES. Maybe we would all feel better about the cameras if we called them “general watchers”. It’s all about what you CALL them, you know.

  • Chuck and Sally's Van Man February 4, 2013 (5:54 pm)

    Gotta run to the store for popcorn. This is gonna be good… And for starters, what good are these cameras AFTER THE FACT if their real intent is port security (and implied–at least to me–terrorist related activity)? This whole thing smells like rotten fish.

  • Trigger February 4, 2013 (6:02 pm)

    The Locks is a federal installation, so that’s one thing. But why is the Ministry of Homeland Security installing cameras on Alki, Fauntleroy? What is the federal interest? And why are the police so excited about about it?

  • mariem February 4, 2013 (6:02 pm)

    The way the information is presented by the spokesperson suggests a thorough program plan for the cameras was not developed. But it seems to me in order to get a homeland security grant, a rather thorough proposal would have been submitted by the city…..

  • JayDee February 4, 2013 (6:25 pm)

    …and why do the citizens only find out about it only after deployment?

    I am trying to figure out why this particular camera system was deployed. Can you imagine a “situation” that would be uncovered by the carrion (helicopter) birds? A Corvette, driven at 100 mph can only make it 30-40 feet into the sound from Beach Drive. Is it scuba divers they are afraid of? It sounds like a federal freebie in search of a problem.

    Ships with migrants hidden on-board aren’t the point, and it is not like someone with ill will against the U.S. would paint a danger sign on the bad cargo container. I would really like to hear what they thought they would see? Forget the 9/11 after-the-fact analogies: Knowing the identities of those terrorists hasn’t changed a thing (the vast majority came from Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally, and we did nothing against them).

  • miws February 4, 2013 (6:31 pm)

    This is about two decades too late.


    If this system had been in place twenty years ago, we may have been able to figure out how the heck Tom Hanks and the kid got from Lake Union, through the Locks, and to Alki, in a small rowboat, in what was perceived to be a short amount of time….



  • raincity February 4, 2013 (7:08 pm)

    I appreciate your coverage of this issue!!!

  • flynlo February 4, 2013 (7:54 pm)

    TR – Thanks for all your good work!
    Things that I would like to see published by SPD.
    Who manufactures the camera? What is the model number and specifications of the camera? Who is making the “mesh network” & what protocols are they are using? This info. would be nice so that an independent verification could be made about some of SPD statements. I really don’t expect they we will ever get any answers to questions such as this since this is all “homeland security” based.

    From the SPD Blotter video that you mentioned above:
    “I can draw a box over those areas & effectively black out what”s behind it”. What’s to prevent SPD from “undrawing” the box at a later time?

    Also: “Applying that function at the camera…” –
    Ya, it won’t be recorded by the VCR – until they decide to “undraw the box”!

    And lastly: “there’s no way to remove that privacy masking”
    Who do they think that they are kidding? Does he really expect us to believe that once the masking
    has been done, that the camera is then worthless if it were to be moved to a different location??

    All that he is describing is a set of software functions that are completely reverse-able at any point that they wish! What a JOKE!!

  • Erin February 4, 2013 (8:03 pm)

    So, if I am correct, the federal government is amazingly in debt. They think the best use of the tax payer dollars we do not have is to pay for cameras to go up to watch a general area, in case a swimmer of shore who is not in a dead zone happens to be visualized going down? WHAATTTTTTTTTTT!?!?!?!?

  • wetone February 4, 2013 (8:15 pm)

    It looks and sounds like they are fraudulently using federal funds to set up a whole inner-city camera network to me. I use to really try and stick up for the SPD, but this one has lost me as one of their supporters. This Chief McDonagh sounds like a used car salesman, trying to sell something he either knows nothing about or more than likely something he does know about, but in the usual Seattle way they start building and spending without doing their homework and now trying to cover their rears. These cameras have little to do with Port Security. It is about watching traffic and people. I like how McDonagh doesn’t even know who will have access or run this system at this time, very scary. Cameras don’t prevent crime, proven fact, having more police out on the streets does alot better along with a better court system. I got a good laugh today walking at the beach, there was some people taking pictures by the Statue of Liberty on the promenade. They were on the water side facing the street, in the back ground was one of the new cameras ! What’s happened Seattle

  • Alki Area February 4, 2013 (8:21 pm)

    You’re over thinking it. It’s an “at use” system. Meaning no one is sitting there all day looking at the video. It’s used when they need to “take a look” at a situation before someone can be there on scene. Say someone reports a shooting or fight or something. Sure a car could be there in a 5-10 minutes, a helicopter in 30 minutes (unless it HAPPENS to be in the air at that very second right over the beach). But someone at police HQ can just click a button and see the cameras INSTANTLY, see if a car is racing area from a scene, or such. The point of an “at use” system.

  • Come on February 4, 2013 (8:46 pm)

    Cameras worked so well to prevent the terror attacks in London on the transit system

  • Anne February 4, 2013 (9:47 pm)

    I don’t think cameras will necessarily PREVENT a crime but get a grip folks-they can sure be used as a tool to identify someone who commits one. In the London incident-weren’t the cameras used to help identify some the people responsible??-Isn’t that a good thing-I think it is.

  • me February 4, 2013 (9:47 pm)

    I can email you the information that “flynio” requested above, if you like.

  • bolo February 4, 2013 (9:59 pm)

    A lot of non-answers to simple (yet important) questions. That must have been frustrating. The evasive answers can also lead one to an alternate theory: These are actually fake cameras, installed in plain view to deter crime (like the kind we buy to put over the garage door, etc.) and they had to ad-lib an explanation that would keep the public thinking that the cameras are actually functional. I don’t really buy that theory but then, I keep thinking, “How can they not know the answers to these simple questions?” It’s starting to really bother me.

  • cwit February 4, 2013 (10:07 pm)

    How are we even going to be sure they’re actually using that masking he’s speaking of? Are they going to publish screencaptures of all the cameras?

    They changed the positions of the cameras on Alki because people could see that it was facing the wrong way but I wonder how long it would have taken had no citizens brought that to their attention.

  • Phil Mocek February 4, 2013 (10:12 pm)

    Flynlo wrote, “Things that I would like to see published by SPD. Who manufactures the camera? What is the model number and specifications of the camera? Who is making the “mesh network” & what protocols are they are using? This info.”

    On January 30, I filed a public records request for “purchase orders, maintenance contracts, owner’s manuals, installation manuals, service manuals, technical specifications, usage policies, data access procedures, and data retention policies for the public surveillance cameras recently installed on Alki Beach in Seattle, along with all associated metadata.” SPD’s estimated date of completion is March 16. Interested parties can track this request at the link I provided, where the records will be posted when provided.

  • Mike February 4, 2013 (10:47 pm)

    2 thoughts
    1) DHS has some reasoning for installation of these cameras, and you’ll never get to know why.
    2) DHS needed to use funds before 2012 budgets were being analyzed to provide funds for 2013 budgets and this was a quick way to use up funds so they get the full amount for 2013. (It’s not a joke, that’s how crap works)

  • Phil Mocek February 5, 2013 (12:29 am)

    I also requested the following public records:

    * roster of members of the wireless mesh surveillance camera network steering committee,
    * agendas for meetings of the committee,
    * minutes of meetings of the committee,
    * e-mail, memos, and other correspondence between the steering committee and Paul A. McDonagh #4708 and/or Monty E. Moss #5598 of Seattle Police Department,
    * and E-mail, memos, and other correspondence to or from Paul McDonagh and/or Monty Moss regarding the wireless mesh network or components thereof,
    along with any associated metadata.

  • Greg February 5, 2013 (7:12 am)

    This reeks of privacy concerns.

    “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” -Ben Franklin

  • CE February 5, 2013 (7:38 am)

    This article from the Times today highlights why we should be concerned about our growing lack of privacy. Any American citizen the government deems an imminent terrorist threat can be lawfully killed by the government without a trial. Who gets to decide who is a threat? We are on a slippery slope.

  • CE February 5, 2013 (7:47 am)

    Thank you WSB for your work on this story and getting it posted.

  • gatewooder February 5, 2013 (10:17 am)

    Hopefully the camera network will fill in some of the empty spots on our public waterfront. Maybe that will make those feeling they have the need the privacy to discharge weapons on Alki Beach think twice before they squeeze the trigger.

  • Mike February 5, 2013 (12:58 pm)

    CE, hate to tell you but even without the recent scare tactic in the media, treason has always had a penalty of death if the government feels you deserve it.

  • Neighbor February 5, 2013 (1:35 pm)

    @ Mike-the thing with treason is that it has to be proven by a court of law. This new little nugget reveals that the government has absolutely no reason to provide any justification to killing a US citizen, other than someone deemed him/her a threat. If this doesn’t strike you as stunningly anti-American then perhaps you should review what the Revolutionary War was about.This administration has gone where no other administration has, murdering US citizens including a 16 year old child the day after killing his father. No trial, no jury, just a single man, if we are to believe it is indeed Obama who gave the kill order. Why would any American who loves thier country think is lawful under our Constitutiion?

    @ Phil- thank you, you rock!

  • Mike February 5, 2013 (7:19 pm)

    Neighbor, you obviously were born in 2008.

  • a little bird February 6, 2013 (8:51 am)

    Why is the SPD involving itself in other jurisdictions, e.g. the port police, the coast guard? They are not telling the whole story.

Sorry, comment time is over.