Seattle Police surveillance cameras: ACLU asks city to reconsider; Council briefing details for Wednesday

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

More new developments today in the saga of the federal Homeland Security-funded Seattle Police surveillance cameras installed from Alki to Fauntleroy and destined for other waterfront spots in the city as far north as Ballard.

The agenda is now out for the first City Council committee briefing on the cameras since WSB broke the news of the unannounced installations January 29, following questions about the cameras that readers started noticing the preceding weekend.

We first reported here two days ago that the briefing is set for the Council’s Public Safety, Technology, and Civil Rights Committee next Wednesday afternoon; agenda details, and more of our correspondence with committee chair Bruce Harrell, later in this story. It’s the same committee that, as reported in our second story after discovering the camera network, gave its blessing last May to Seattle Police receiving the $5 million Homeland Security grant that is funding it with a “wireless mesh” communications system. That briefing mentioned cameras but in the port-security context, with no mention they would be installed in recreational/residential areas like Alki.

First: What the ACLU is asking, in a letter sent yesterday afternoon to the mayor – who finally spoke out about the cameras back on Monday, telling WSB they wouldn’t be activated without a “thorough public vetting” – and council. The letter from executive director Kathleen Taylor is summarized by an ACLU spokesperson as follows:

The ACLU expresses concern over the City of Seattle’s practice of accepting federal grants to acquire and implement surveillance technology with no public input or oversight by elected city officials.

The ACLU is calling upon the City’s elected leaders to re-examine the extensive surveillance camera system being implemented along Alki and the waterfront. The ACLU also is calling upon elected leaders to develop a public process with public input and full disclosure of plans when the city is considering acquisition of surveillance technology and implementation of surveillance programs.

You can read the entire letter here. Taylor writes that the ACLU “supports the use of technology that improves policing and keeps us safer (but not) the use of devices that collect, store and share data about legal behavior and innocent conduct.”

We’ll also be checking on any formal response to the ACLU’s letter. Meantime, the agenda is out for the City Council committee briefing next week:

This is the first item on the Wednesday (February 20th) agenda for the Public Safety, Technology and Civil Rights Committee, which meets at 2 pm, City Hall downtown. The meeting begins with up to 20 minutes of public comment. Then the first formal item:

1. Port Security Surveillance Camera Project Discussion


Presenter: Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer and Monty Moss, Seattle Police Department; Mark Schmidt, Department of Information Technology; Dan Eder, Council Central Staff

There are no documents attached; to date, this updated map of the 30 planned cameras is the only city document that’s been distributed.

(Click image for full zoomable PDF version of new map)
There was also an SPD Blotter post published February 4th, the same day we published our report on an interview with Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh, who commands the Special Operations Bureau and was described as in charge of this program, along with Det. Moss.

The committee is chaired by Councilmember Bruce Harrell (who is also a candidate for mayor). This past Wednesday, we published part of his lengthy reply to our request for comment on the cameras and the lack of public notification before they started going up – mostly in relation to the announcement of the impending committee briefing.

He also told WSB that he and Councilmember Nick Licata, who is also on the Public Safety (etc.) committee, are drafting legislation related to this kind of technology. Details are in Councilmember Harrell’s reply to our request for comment, published in its entirety as follows:

I absolutely understand the public’s concern for the use of surveillance cameras, whether they are drones or panoramic cameras on the shoreline. I do not like them and I know the public does not like them. For all surveillance equipment, we must have policies in place to regulate its use to ensure strong privacy protections. The police department made a strong public safety case for the use of drones during exigent circumstances (search and rescue, hostage situations, bomb threats, and natural disasters). That is why the committee drafted legislation to protect the public’s civil liberties but permit its use for specific situations.

Council Bill 117445 was discussed at the Public Safety meeting on May 2, 2012. Again, the purpose of the bill was to reimburse the City of Seattle for equipment and planning needs associated with preventing, responding to, and recovering from, threats or acts of terrorism under the Port Security Grant Program for Federal Fiscal Year 2008. As you may recall from the discussion, I asked specifically what the cameras would be used for and Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh answered on the waterways, water, and port facilities. In the bill’s fiscal note, it was made clear by SPD that the funding authorized by this legislation continues previous efforts and reflects a multi-disciplinary approach that recognizes the need for prevention, protection, and response capability. Such prevention, protection and response capabilities is particularly important to the Port of Seattle, the 6th busiest in the US, Harbor Island, Washington State Ferry terminals, and cruise ship terminals. Months of work by city departments, along with regional and federal partners determined this as a capability not adequately represented in the region. The equipment included in this funding package is vital in advancing our goal to make Seattle the most prepared city in America by protecting those attributes that shape the character of this city.

Again, the committee determined that SPD had made a strong business case for the use of these public safety cameras as part of the municipal mesh network for use only on waterways, port facilities and facing the Puget Sound. Installation of surveillance cameras installed in recreational/residential zones for general surveillance was and will not be supported by the committee.

I have scheduled SPD to be at the Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology committee on February 20, 2 pm to discuss this issue. The committee is currently examining legislation to prevent the cameras from operating in residential zones and disabling the 360 degree feature to prevent the cameras from viewing any residential buildings. I am requiring legislation to restrict its use and protect the public’s privacy before they can go online. I have always asked SPD to be proactive in its community outreach and SPD should have held meetings with the community adjacent to the proposed locations before any installations.

While the Public Safety committee was drafting legislation to regulate the Seattle Police Department’s use of drones, we were also examining subsequent legislation to address grants and Council approval for all public safety cameras. Councilmember Licata and I are now drafting legislation that would 1) require City Council approval for any department to purchase or acquire surveillance equipment that records or observes the public and 2) an operations protocol for the use of the equipment must be adopted by the Council as well. I have also talked with a professor at the UW Law School (Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic) to assist in identifying the best laws in addition to working with the ACLU and the Human Rights Commission.

Our first council comment on the cameras came last week; we spoke with Councilmember Tim Burgess (also a mayoral candidate) when he came to West Seattle for the Southwest District Council‘s monthly meeting. As reported here February 7th, Burgess told us he considered the installation in recreational/residential areas, without public notification in advance, “borderline problematic.”

WHAT’S NEXT: Again, the City Council Public Safety, Technology, and Civil Rights Committee takes this up at 2 pm next Wednesday, preceded by a public comment period (not limited to this topic). Seattle Police had reiterated in our February 1st interview that installation was proceeding with a goal of having the system working by March 31st, but that was before Mayor McGinn’s promise that activation wouldn’t happen until a “thorough public vetting” had happened – we don’t know yet what that is expected to entail beyond Wednesday’s briefing.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: We have now categorized all our stories on this subject – this is the eighth – under the coverage archive “Seattle Police surveillance cameras” – find them all, newest to oldest, here. (All of our coverage categories, along with links to access them via RSS, can be seen by scrolling through our sidebar to the list toward its end.)

10 Replies to "Seattle Police surveillance cameras: ACLU asks city to reconsider; Council briefing details for Wednesday"

  • CE February 15, 2013 (4:35 pm)

    Thanks to the ACLU and to the WSB for keeping this important issue in the forefront.

  • Citizen Sane February 15, 2013 (4:49 pm)

    This is good news. Now, the thugs running around have less to worry about.

  • john bozley February 15, 2013 (5:53 pm)

    I am an american. I trust my fellow citizens. We are good people. We believe in our country, our constitution, and our bill of rights. We won the 2nd world war and freed Europe and the world from tyranny. We have forgotten who we are
    and have a current government who doesn’t remember what our founders fought for. We have a current government who don’t trust their fellow citizens and are determined to pit us against each other. Our current government has militarized our local peace officers and made the citizens the criminals.
    Do not let this government do this… resist or die. thank you

  • Dave February 15, 2013 (5:53 pm)

    Since both political parties are doing their best to turn this country into a police state helped by the bulk of citizens who value “safety” over freedom I thank the ALCU for their efforts. Some of us actually want to live in a city, not Mayberry.

  • biff Michael Appia February 15, 2013 (7:40 pm)

    I remember when they had the police cameras on the 5th floor of the Bon Marche in Westlake Center?
    The police would use these when there were no cars on the street then. The car-free area of Westlake Center then. Those cameras the police would use to spot coke deals.

    me: “What about the people buying large amounts of coke at one time from a dealer?”, “Do you bust them also”. “For the large amount or dealing themselves”?

    police: “No”.

    me: “Why”.

    police: “Not enough proof”.

    Like George & Jr. Bush with their friends and family plan.

  • wetone February 15, 2013 (10:56 pm)

    I don’t see any mention of SPD Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh which is said to be in charge of this project showing for the meeting ? Must be out of town with Diaz ? Still no mention of Coast Guard or Port of Seattle police which I find very odd for a port security project as this is supposed to be. Cameras in residential or recreational areas Harrell says will not be supported by the committee. Well start taking the cameras down then as they are all mounted in residential and recreational areas. These people should be accountable when they blow money like this. But then it was only 5 mil.

  • tom February 16, 2013 (5:27 am)

    worried?it’s just another set of cameras to be in the world.there everywhere.stores intersection ATM”S banks on my house watching you.if you don’t like being watched don’t go outside or go to london it the most watch city in the world,the cameras can speak back to you and tell ya to stop pissing in the alley

  • S February 16, 2013 (8:07 am)

    The ACLU is a cancer and I don’t see why people are so worried about cameras in public area watching for criminal activity.

  • WsEd February 16, 2013 (10:07 am)


    A cancer really? Maybe you enjoy too many rights for your liking. The ACLU is the only thing between you and the stasi oh sorry here we call that homeland security. And people still wonder how the Nazis came to power.

  • business as usual February 16, 2013 (9:33 pm)

    of course the committee meeting is during the day when the working public cannot attend and thereby effectively limiting our right to participate. I oppose these cameras in public spaces but especially in residential neighborhoods. Too bad I must be at work that day, so I can in turn pay my taxes…for instillation of cameras in my neighborhood.

Sorry, comment time is over.