The Seattle Police Department held a public meeting on a plan to use 30 shoreline surveillance cameras to monitor for terrorist threats and aid in emergency response and criminal investigations at the Alki Bathhouse on March 12. Up top, one of the cameras, already installed but not operational, at the corner of California and Harbor Ave.
Criticism overrides support at SPD surveillance meeting on Alki
The debate of protection vs. privacy between police and citizens over surveillance cameras perched along Seattle’s waterfront, including several in West Seattle, continued at the Alki Bathhouse on March 12 as the Seattle Police Department held their first in a series of public meetings on the divisive topic.
Many citizens have expressed worry the cameras, with their ability to swivel and look at land as well as the Sound, are an invasion of privacy while Seattle Police have spent the past month attempting to calm those concerns and ensure they will implement the proper safeguards to limit abuse of the system.
While SPD is taking the project lead, once implemented (Mayor McGinn said they won’t be turned on until all community questions are answered) a wireless mesh network affiliated with the cameras will allow several agencies – from the Coast Guard and Seattle Fire to King County Metro and the Port of Seattle – access to the system.
SPD Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh of the Special Operations Bureau and Det. Monty Moss (the technical lead on this project) led the discussion, first introducing the surveillance system basics and then opening the meeting to questions. While the majority of those who spoke up continued to be skeptical of the plan, others, including a few Alki-area business owners, showed support for the system’s ability to improve safety, or at least the perception of it.
“The whole intention of this is not to spy on the people of Seattle … I don’t want that either,” McDonagh assured the crowd of a little over 30 when asked how people can truly know the privacy masking (SPD said permanent black bars will obscure the cameras ability to record into people's windows) is in place.
Beyond peering into windows, however, Moss explained, “Anything the public has a right to see, the camera has a right to see.”
Several cameras were installed before SPD told anyone in the public sector about it, and one woman asked why there was no outreach, no press release, nothing before they appeared?
“I’ll take responsibility,” McDonagh said. “We had ideas for press conferences in a tentative schedule and quite honestly other things came up … I apologize but sometimes that’s the way things go.”
He added that the rush to get cameras installed was related to deadlines in using federal Homeland Security grant money before it went away. “I know it came out kind of strange … but at the same time we are not hiding anything,” he said.
Calling the surveillance system a “mechanized invasion of privacy,” one citizen asked how the cameras were any different from a uniformed police officer standing next to a light pole snapping photos of people with a handheld camera.
“Somebody would come up eventually and say, ‘Why are you taking pictures?’ and it would be embarrassing to have to say, ‘Well, you know, we are looking for terrorists but I am taking pictures of you just in the course of things and we’ll keep them for 30 days and if turns out you committed a crime then we’ll (use it), but don’t worry because you probably aren’t going to commit a crime.’”
McDonagh said the difference is “We are not taking pictures, we are taking video that, quite honestly, is not going to be reviewed unless there is a call saying … there was suspicious activity.”
One Alki resident pinpointed a common refrain from many locals over the past month in saying, “I am a very old-fashioned person and so I am one of those people who is 100 percent behind the police and the fire. Always have been, always will be … (However), we live just down the street … this is our home, this is our neighborhood. Just to be real honest it kind of hurts knowing we have cameras looking at us. I’m a cancer patient and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked up and down (Alki) because I use this beach to heal, and I don’t want someone looking and saying ‘There she goes again.’
“We don’t want people looking at us. We want to walk our dogs, we want to laugh, we want to walk on the beach and we don’t want a camera watching us doing it, and that is different from supporting the fire department.”
McDonagh said while he understood her concern, “I have a duty to protect the citizens … to the best of my ability,” and then reminded the crowd that the cameras return to a “home” position focused on the water after being activated for a specific response.
A positive for Alki business owners?
Two Alki business owners/employees spoke up in favor of the cameras – one from Alki Spud who was encouraged that the cameras could be used as evidence against late night beach partiers who migrate to his parking lot to continue the revelry and commit a few crimes along the way.
Another, who did not specifically identify his business other than to say it is family friendly establishment, said, “Think about the business district down here that relies on all the tourists and all the people feeling safe … a lot of us rely on that … and the cameras down here, from my perspective, are a good thing.”
A woman countered that several law-abiding people ideologically opposed to the program would steer clear of Alki.
“The most people that I cater to, families and little kids, probably won’t mind,” he replied, “I’m willing to give it a chance.”
One citizen (not a business owner) stood up in support of the cameras and their ability to help our government respond to emergencies – whether terrorist or local – and make us safer. He was far outnumbered on the night.
To be continued ...
The debate will continue as SPD holds public meetings into the foreseeable future (the next one is at the Belltown Community Center, March 19 at 7 p.m.) until Mayor McGinn gives the program the green light … or not.
A recap of the debate and camera system is also available on the Seattle Channel online.
Additional information from the meeting (according to McDonagh and Moss with SPD):
- Cameras record at five to seven frames per second instead of the more constant 30 frames per second of a usual video camera.
- All camera setups and housings are identical, and SPD is open to the idea (requested by a citizen in attendance) of labeling them as property of SPD and putting up signs at each location to notify the public they may be recorded.
- Privacy masking technology (permanent black bars covering invasive views such as home windows) is done by one man: SPD Det. Monty Moss. No one else has access. Theoretically, if a law enforcement agency received a warrant to do so by a judge, they could temporarily remove the privacy masking on a particular home if a suspect in an active criminal investigation lived or was hiding out there.
- SPD plans to form a citizen committee made up of a few representatives from each neighborhood where cameras are going up. They will be able to evaluate the privacy masking of each camera to ensure windows and other private spaces are properly blacked out. It is unclear at this time how those people will be selected or how their findings will be disseminated.
- Much like WSDOT and SDOT traffic cameras the public can look at themselves on the internet, SPD plans to give public access to each surveillance camera online. However, to avoid public misuse (like stalking behavior) the online version will only show still photos refreshed every few minutes.
- There will not be anyone monitoring the cameras 24 hours a day, due to funding and staffing constraints. They can be instantly tapped into and operated by a number of agencies using the wireless mesh network when needed.
- Video is kept on file for 30 days and then deleted unless a portion is recorded to tape as evidence in a criminal investigation. A user activity log of everyone who accessed the system and used cameras is kept for 90 days.
- While unwilling to go into specifics, Det. Moss said the cameras have several layers of security to make hacking the wireless mesh network and cameras difficult. He said if someone was to steal a camera from a pole it would not give them access to the entire system.
- Cameras return to a “home” position after being actively swiveled for any number of responses. Home position is towards the water.
- The Coast Guard is the only federal agency with access to the cameras.
- Due to city ordinance, no cameras can be installed in a city park.