Police get the picture on Seattle’s spy-camera qualms

Seattle isn’t a city that can be spied on or surveilled without generating public outcry, City Councilmember Bruce Harrell told police officials Wednesday during a meeting on the system of surveillance cameras recently installed along the waterfront.

“In light of that … I expect the department to have a heightened sensitivity toward camera issues,” Harrell said.

Deputy Police Chief Clark Kimerer acknowledged the department could have done a better job of educating the public and the City Council about the system, which was installed without input from the public, particularly residents who live near the cameras. He promised police would hold community meetings to explain how police, fire and other city departments hope to use the cameras to enhance public safety before the system is operational.

So far, the cameras have been installed in Alki, on the Fremont and Ballard bridges, and the Ballard Locks, police said.

Several residents brought their concerns over the system to Wednesday’s meeting of the council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee.

Coming on the heels of a debate about the Police Department’s proposed use of unmanned drones — a plan that was shelved two weeks ago by Mayor Mike McGinn — the camera system sparked an outcry among residents, civil-rights and privacy advocates.

The system, featuring 30 surveillance cameras and a wireless mesh broadband network created by 160 wireless access points, was purchased with a $5 million federal Homeland Security grant aimed at increasing port security.

It is intended to give the city an uninterrupted Broadband channel for information that can be used by police, fire, transportation and Metro to improve the response to public safety hazards and emergencies, according to Det. Monty Moss.

“There’s concern about a growing police state in this country and we feel like it’s happening right in our neighborhood,” said Will Washington of Alki. “You can potentially, literally, look right into my living room.”

But not all of the people who addressed the committee were against the cameras.

Nora Chan, the president of Seniors in Action, said privately funded surveillance cameras have been successfully used in the Chinatown International District and have led to numerous arrests.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington said the city should have sought public input and established guidelines for the acquisition and use of new surveillance technologies before the equipment was here.

Jennifer Shaw, the deputy director of the ACLU of Washington, urged the committee to listen to residents and their concerns..

Police also hope that images gathered from the cameras can be used as evidence to prosecute criminal acts, Moss said.

Police had hoped to have the cameras operational by March 31 in order to meet a grant deadline, but Harrell and Council member Mike O’Brien said there are a lot of questions that have to be answered before that happens.

Among them are how the cameras will be programmed to respect the privacy of residents; whether the cameras will rotate or remain in a fixed position; who will operate them; and how the information will be stored and for how long.

Kimerer, the deputy chief, agreed the issue could have been handled better.

He said police will be inviting members of the public, the ACLU and other civil-right groups to help draft policies governing the use of the equipment.

The cameras will not be turned on until the full council has had a chance to approve the department’s policies and until legislation is drafted by Councilmember Nick Licata governing the acquisition and use of surveillance technology.

After the meeting, Doug Honig, a spokesman for the ACLU, said he was pleased that there had finally been a public discussion on the new cameras.

“It should have happened a long time ago,” he said

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com