Seattle Police surveillance cameras: No ‘public vetting’ events announced yet; councilmembers consider new oversight rules tomorrow

(Camera and “wireless mesh” array at 63rd/Beach Drive, silhouetted at dusk Monday)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

So far, the “thorough public vetting” of the Seattle Police-managed, Homeland Security-funded surveillance cameras awaiting activation in Alki and elsewhere has consisted of two events: A briefing at the City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee meeting two weeks ago (WSB coverage here), and one at the Alki Community Council‘s board meeting in West Seattle the next night (WSB coverage here).

It’s been three weeks since the mayor made the “thorough public vetting” promise here (repeated days later to other media).

At both of the briefings two weeks ago, SPD reps mentioned a plan in the works for public forums; we asked about the dates then, again a week ago, and again this week – still no dates or other details. SPD Public Affairs told WSB this morning they haven’t heard yet either.

A related topic will get some sunlight tomorrow, when the Public Safety (etc.) Committee meets again, to discuss Councilmembers Nick Licata and Bruce Harrell‘s proposal for vetting future use/purchase of surveillance equipment, with at least one clause that appears to apply even to what’s already in the works:

The same committee gave its blessing to the $5 million federal surveillance-camera grant last May, as first reported here on January 31, with chair Harrell and member Mike O’Brien present, but Harrell told WSB last month that the SPD description of the cameras’ purpose as “port security” did not include any mention that they would turn up in residential and recreational areas, as they did in late January, when WSB readers noticed them and asked us about them, leading to first word of what they were.

The ordinance, Council Bill 117730, will be heard in committee at 2 pm tomorrow (Wednesday). Follow that link to read the full text; it cites the now-scrapped drones as well as the waterfront cameras as grounds for creating a new Seattle Municipal Code chapter titled “Acquisition and Use of Surveillance Equipment.” It says in part:

Any City department intending to acquire surveillance equipment shall obtain City Council approval via ordinance prior to acquisition. Prior to deployment or installation of the surveillance equipment, City departments shall obtain Council approval via ordinance of operational protocols, unless applicable operational protocols were previously approved by ordinance. In requesting approval for acquisition of surveillance equipment, City departments shall include proposed operational protocols containing the following information for the City Council’s consideration, along with any other information specifically requested by the City Council:
A. A clear statement describing the purpose and use of the proposed surveillance equipment.
B. The type of surveillance equipment to be acquired and used.
C. The intended specific location of such surveillance equipment if affixed to a building or other structure.
D. How and when a department proposes to use the surveillance equipment, such as whether the equipment will be operated continuously or used only under specific circumstances.
E. How the department’s use of the equipment will be regulated to protect privacy and limit the risk of potential abuse.
F. A description of how and when data will be collected and retained and who will have access to any data captured by the surveillance equipment.
G. The extent to which activity will be monitored in real time as data is being captured and the extent to which monitoring of historically recorded information will occur.
H. A description of the nature and extent of public outreach conducted in each community in which the department intends to use the surveillance equipment.
I. If a department is requesting to acquire or use drones or other unmanned aircraft, it shall propose the specific circumstances under which they may be deployed, along with clearly articulated authorization protocols.
J. If more than one department will have access to the surveillance equipment or the data captured by it, a lead department shall be identified that is responsible for maintaining the equipment and ensuring compliance with all related protocols. If the lead department intends to delegate any related responsibilities to other departments and city personnel, these responsibilities and associated departments and personnel shall be clearly identified.

And it includes a provision that could apply retroactively to the camera system that’s already been partly installed:

Section 3. Each department operating surveillance equipment prior to the effective date of this ordinance shall adopt written data management protocols consistent with SMC 14.18.30 no later than thirty days following the effective date of this ordinance and submit these protocols to the City Council for review and possible approval by ordinance.

A memo summarizing the proposal is included with the online agenda for tomorrow afternoon’s meeting; as is SOP for committee meetings, there will be a public-comment period, though it’s at the start of the meeting, not attached to any particular agenda item.

Regarding protocols with the now-installed waterfront cameras – so far, SPD has said only that their video files will be kept only for 30 days unless intercepted as possible crime evidence, and that access logs would be kept for 90 days. Who gets access to the video, for viewing and/or controlling the cameras, was to be decided by a multi-department steering committee whose members have not been disclosed.

We’ll be at tomorrow afternoon’s meeting; it’ll be live on the Seattle Channel, cable or online.

WSB coverage of the waterfront surveillance cameras, dating back to January 29th, is archived here, newest to oldest.

25 Replies to "Seattle Police surveillance cameras: No 'public vetting' events announced yet; councilmembers consider new oversight rules tomorrow"

  • New2Alki, rethinking... March 5, 2013 (10:58 am)

    Did anybody just see that SPD helicopter flying down Alki? It was at eye level (on the 2nd story of my apartment) flying south and was being paced by an SPD squad car. It was going really slow and appeared to have cameras (or something) pointed at the houses & flats along the drive. Very creepy for sure.

    • WSB March 5, 2013 (11:02 am)

      SPD has no helicopter – somebody else told us they thought it was the Sheriff’s helicopter, which sometimes helps SPD, but KCSO tells us it’s not theirs. Still checking.

  • New2Alki, rethinking... March 5, 2013 (11:07 am)

    It was a sheriffs helicopter, guess they are not associated with the SPD. We are new here and are overwhelmed with this camera/spying thing, thanks for keeping us posted on this amazing site. KCSO was CERTAINLY on the copter, I missed getting a picture by seconds.

    • WSB March 5, 2013 (11:19 am)

      Training exercise. Just updated in a separate story. The public information officer didn’t know, apparently.

  • B_B March 5, 2013 (11:33 am)

    Still no announced ‘public vetting’?

    Disappointed with McGinn not making this a priority. This seems to be turning into a ‘thanks for your feedback’ AFTER the decision has already been made meaning the Public Servant holds the Public Opinion wth little regard

    Drones -> Surveillance -> Predictive Policing

    Not a fan of the trend

  • Diane March 5, 2013 (11:56 am)

    not sure if you saw this yesterday on fb:
    The Seattle Channel 19 hours ago
    Our City Inside/Out crew with Brian Callanan Seattle Channel is heading out for the day to do interviews for Friday’s upcoming show. Did you know 30 new security cameras are going up around Seattle’s shoreline, and police plan to activate them soon to help with public safety?
    Diane Rose Vincent; yes, couple weeks ago, attended meeting at Alki CC re cameras on Alki and rest of city
    currently watching seattlechannel on tv, city council re SLU zoning
    The Seattle Channel; Diane Rose Vincent – tune in this Friday at 7 p.m. for the full show and discussion.

  • wetone March 5, 2013 (1:25 pm)

    Just another case of McGinn, city counsel and the SPD trying to figure out how to cover their butts on this one. Some people need to be held accountable (fired not reassigned or early retirement) for the lying to us from the start and continue doing so. We got some real winners working for us. Spend spend spend it’s the city’s way. We need some people with common sense that does their homework first before they spend. Not spend, lie and no common sense as all above have done.

  • Phil Mocek March 5, 2013 (2:11 pm)

    I posted my thoughts on Council Bill 117730 as well as suggestions I received from other people in response to my request for such.

  • Gregory March 5, 2013 (2:21 pm)

    This is really concerning. We’re dealing with a significant implementation of invasive technology where, if abused, puts our right to privacy at risk…not to mention the potential costs to defend lawsuits that will likely develop.

    The city leaders and police officials need to come forth and answer the public concerns and, as McGinn stated, have a “thorough public vetting.”

  • cjboffoli March 5, 2013 (2:39 pm)

    I carry around a smartphone that transmits and documents my location in real time, information that has been shown in recent days to be widely accessible to law enforcement agencies perhaps even without the need for a warrant. So I guess I’d feel pretty foolish opposing these cameras which are designed to monitor public spaces in which I have no reasonable expectation of privacy.

  • chuck and sally's van man March 5, 2013 (4:05 pm)

    Say CJ, me thinks you are looking at this the wrong way. Maybe the question is why the (____) should law enforcement be able to so easily access your personal information? Many people on here seem so eager to let government lead them around and erode their rights, drop by drop. Our founding fathers cringe.

  • Steve T March 5, 2013 (4:51 pm)

    Traffic violations and traffic patterns are allowed to be captured, by the definition of surveillance cameras. And anyone who uses the term “no reasonable expectation of privacy” are part of the problem.

  • Dead End Marc March 5, 2013 (5:02 pm)

    If you aren’t doing anything illegal you still ought to be worried about this intrusion.
    This is not going to go away anytime soon, IMO, because the folks that paid for it, and are implementing it thinks it will make their jobs easier, at the expense of a small slice of your privacy and freedom.
    This was originally explained as Port security, but the Ports have their own cameras. They claimed to ‘black out’ private residence windows in the field of view, but have mentioned that could be overridden at a moments notice for a good reason (whatever all of that means).
    Not sure if they take IR (infra-red) or if normal cloth blinds are ‘transparent’.
    Despite the timeliness, this is a ‘1984’ slippery slope.

  • Ordinary_Citizen March 5, 2013 (5:04 pm)

    So many people just accept the fact that they don’t have a right to privacy in public so that means its ok for the government to stalk us and spy and keep data for undefined purposes.
    @Phil Moeck Thanks for being so proactive.
    @Gregory “Like”
    @ B_B I agree. I wonder why they chose to test it on us and the SE community. Is there an underlying racist/poor(er) people agenda?
    Everyone that can should go to tomorrow’s council meeting.

  • Phil Mocek March 5, 2013 (6:05 pm)

    We have reasonable expectations of privacy in public from cameras looking up our skirts, from X-rays peering into our bags, and from parabolic microphones listening in on our quiet conversations.

    That I leave the privacy of my home is not justification for our government to stockpile information about where I’ve been.

  • G March 5, 2013 (7:19 pm)

    Tempest in a teapot. We live in a political correct society that governs everything we do from the moment we leave the house till we come home, and people are worried about a few police cameras.

    Rich indeed.

  • cjboffoli March 5, 2013 (7:46 pm)

    chuck and sally’s: I think you misunderstand. My point was not that the government should have warrantless access to our communications. It was that there are intrusions into our privacy (by both the government and the private sector) that are considerably more significant than cameras monitoring public places. I don’t see these cameras as being any different than a police officer sitting in a cruiser parked along the side of the road. And as a law abiding citizen doing nothing wrong, I have no reason to be concerned by their presence.
    I’m pretty sure the Founding Fathers didn’t have an opinion on electronic monitoring of sections of our coastline as much as they were just trying to prevent British redcoats from bursting into their houses in the middle of the night. And I think they’d agree that anyone standing in the middle of the town square ridiculously demanding privacy might need to have their cider ration reduced. Not for nothing but the Founding Fathers also thought regular bathing was unhealthy and keeping slaves was A-OK. So let’s keep that in mind as we invoke their memory in relation to the issues of quite a different modern age.
    Steve T: What is more a real ‘problem’ to me is less the threat of government intrusion in my life than daily events that remind me that I’m living in a place and a culture in which people go to great lengths to avoid responsibility. T-bone someone at an intersection? Just drive off. Drunk drive your truck onto someone’s lawn? Just run away. Break into someone’s house and steal from them? Your lawyer will help you plead it out. It doesn’t matter who you hurt along the way. There’s always an excuse or a sob story about a hard scrabble upbringing to justify even the most despicable crimes.
    I see way too many people committing crime with impunity in this city and I personally cheer every time I see when a random bit of video surveillance helps police detectives solve previously unsolvable crimes. As someone who makes a living with cameras I’ve also seen, time and again, how the truth-telling presence of cameras works to keep law enforcement responsible and accountable. Not Big Brother but the unblinking eye of truth that makes it very difficult for people to lie.
    So I’m not willing to join the chorus of paranoid hyperbole about the government stockpiling information. Nor do I think that public policy is best decided by the kind of irrational emotion I see being flung around over this topic. I don’t see patriots as much as I see a lot of antisocial people who consider it abhorrent that they’d have to follow the rules that are meant to govern our civil society.

  • Phil Mocek March 5, 2013 (9:21 pm)

    Cjboffoli wrote, “I don’t see these cameras as being any different than a police officer sitting in a cruiser parked along the side of the road.”

    One of the cameras is somewhat like a police officer sitting in a cruiser on the side of the road who has perfect memory and works 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, recording the actions of everyone who passes, just in case that information is someday useful. The 30 cameras the U.S. Department of Homeland Security bought SPD are more like 30 such superhuman police officers, and a city-wide system of general public surveillance on every street corner that records our every move once we leave the privacy of our homes is a dystopian nightmare that will never be practical to staff with humans, but will be practical with surveillance cameras. Surveillance cameras on every utility pole, feeding their data to the nearest fusion center so that computers can read our cars’ license plates and recognize our faces, storing all that data away at the NSA’s Utah Data Center in case it’s useful someday is precisely what we’re going to have as soon as the cost of the equipment drops unless we get our rogue police department under control soon.

  • ivan March 6, 2013 (5:10 am)

    I thank my lucky stars every day and every night that I have never been molded and conditioned to acceptance of authority to the extent that cjboffoli has.

  • Sillygoose March 6, 2013 (8:59 am)

    Activate these things already, we don’t have enough officers to be every where! If this helps catch the criminals then go for it. If you are not commiting a crime why does it matter! I would love to see them on the corner of Graham and California Ave to catch the drug dealers working out of the Chuck and Sally’s parking lot!

  • phil dirt March 6, 2013 (10:41 am)

    “So I’m not willing to join the chorus of paranoid hyperbole about the government stockpiling information. Nor do I think that public policy is best decided by the kind of irrational emotion I see being flung around over this topic. I don’t see patriots as much as I see a lot of antisocial people who consider it abhorrent that they’d have to follow the rules that are meant to govern our civil society.”
    Comment by cjboffoli — 7:46 pm March 5, 2013 #

    I’m sure Hugo Chavez would agree with you.

  • Ordinary_Citizen March 6, 2013 (1:13 pm)

    How does not wanting to be spied on equate to being anti-social? How about being a good citizen by being involved and not being slammed for getting involved with our government processes and providing the checks and balances that the quiet majority doesn’t want to do?

  • Ordinary_Citizen March 6, 2013 (1:16 pm)

    How does not wanting to be spied on equate to being anti-social? How about being a good citizen by being involved and not slamming others for getting involved with our government processes and providing the checks and balances that the quiet majority doesn’t want to do? I don’t like people getting away with crime but don’t think this is the right way to do it. Btw, I try to stay away from hyperbole.

  • CE March 6, 2013 (2:47 pm)

    Thanks to those few who made it to the city council meeting and commented, and thanks to Phil for all the work done on this issue. Also to WSB for the platform to discuss this.

  • NotMe March 7, 2013 (12:05 pm)

    Anyone that supported the Patriot Act should realize this is one of many results. “Homeland Security” is a veil for spying on our own people, among many other things. Nice, huh? Nothing good can come from profiling with cameras like this. And no, it isn’t going to keep the boogeyman from getting to you.
    I have a new-found respect for the mayor. At least he is allowing us the sliver of a chance to stop this from happening. Kudos for standing up for his own fellow citizens to question the Federal Government.

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