Patrick Robinson
A surveillance camera set up by the Seattle Police Department as part of a homeland security grant is seen at the corner of California and Harbor Ave S.W. Seattle City Council is currently working towards a vote on a new proposal that would require city departments to get the OK from the council before purchasing or procuring several types of surveillance technology.

UPDATE 2: City Council approves surveillance equipment bill to avoid surprises

Update 2 for March 22
On the day the bill passed (March 18) a number of Herald readers wrote in questioning the “reasonable suspicion” clause in the following passage:

“City departments may acquire or use surveillance equipment that is used on a temporary basis for the purpose of a criminal investigation supported by reasonable suspicion, or pursuant to a lawfully issued search warrant, or under exigent circumstances as defined in case law. This exemption from the provisions of this ordinance does not apply to surveillance cameras mounted on drones or other unmanned aircraft.”

As one West Seattle resident wrote, the clause “gives police the freedom to conduct warrantless surveillance as long as they have ‘reasonable suspicion’ (which equals) they don’t need a search warrant!”

We asked Councilmember Bruce Harrell to respond to those concerns and this is what he came back with:

"The new language clarifies the standard the police department has for temporary surveillance for criminal investigations. Again, the purpose of the bill is to prevent departments from acquiring surveillance equipment without public input and Council approval. The Council wants to see operational protocols that address how the equipment will be used and protocols that address logistics around data retention, storage, and access. If the Council approves a department’s request to obtain the surveillance equipment, the department cannot use the equipment until Council adopts operational protocols by ordinance. The legislation restricts the use of surveillance and prevents the issues related to drones and cameras along Alki.

"Council does not want to obstruct and slow down the criminal investigation process conducted by SPD when they have reasonable suspicion and probable cause. Public safety is my highest priority. Courts do not require a warrant to do “plain view” surveillance. The Seattle Police Department made their business case along with the King County Prosecutor’s office and Law Department. The Public Safety committee is forcing a tough discussion in this groundbreaking legislation. Seattle is one of the first cities to enact this type of legislation to restrict surveillance. This legislation strikes a balance in terms of accountability and effective policing. The committee will work closely with the departments on the implementation of this legislation and will review its implementation within one year. I would propose amendments to the legislation during the review process if additional accountability measures are needed."

Update for March 18
On March 18 Seattle’s City Council unanimously passed (9-0) a bill requiring city departments to obtain council approval prior to acquiring certain surveillance equipment.

Council Bill 117730 comes on the heels of public outcry over cameras recently installed along Seattle’s shorelines (nine in West Seattle) without any public notification. The cameras are funded through a Homeland Security grant to monitor for terrorist threats in the Puget Sound, but can also swivel to keep an eye on the streets by a number of government agencies.

The bill also requires departments to present data “related to proper use and deployment of certain surveillance equipment for Council review, requiring departments to adopt written protocols that address data retention, (and) storage and access of any data obtained through the use of certain surveillance equipment …” within 30 days of notifying the council.

The bill states “a public outreach plan for each community in which the department intends to use the surveillance equipment that includes opportunity for public meetings, a public comment period, and written agency response to these comments.”

In contrast, no public outreach was done prior to SPD having the latest cameras installed.

Certain types of surveillance are exempt from the bill including human-worn and traffic specific cameras.

In a change based on Seattle Police recommendations, the following passage was added in later iterations of the bill, allowing exemptions in specific criminal investigations: “City departments may acquire or use surveillance equipment that is used on a temporary basis for the purpose of a criminal investigation supported by reasonable suspicion, or pursuant to a lawfully issued search warrant, or under exigent circumstances as defined in case law. This exemption from the provisions of this ordinance does not apply to surveillance cameras mounted on drones or other unmanned aircraft.” (UPDATED on 3/19 to most up-to-date version. Readers have asked whether the "reasonable suspicion" clause for use of surveillance equipment is actually granting police new abilities, or defining their current rights - we have inquiries out to answer that question.)

Councilmember Bruce Harrel, chair of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology committee, called the bill “a pretty huge step for the city to take,” later adding, “The bottom line is we are going to have an open and transparent conversation whenever surveillance equipment is used in this city. I will not be the sort of situation where residents, businesses and citizens wake up and find that Big Brother is indeed snooping upon their privacy rights.”

“I continue to think, just based on some of the comments, that people have a complete misunderstanding of the legislation,” he continued. “The legislation restricts surveillance equipment … without it the city does not have to go through the protocols and have the open and transparent discussion on the use of surveillance equipment in this city.”

The council agreed to audit the process and ensure protocols on how surveillance will allegedly be used are an actual reflection of how it is used down the line.

The council’s unanimous vote was directly followed by a group, still not sold on the bill, filling the chambers with an in-unison chant of “Vote you out!”

The full bill is available for viewing here.

For more on the camera debate, please check out the Herald’s latest coverage.

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Original story on March 7
City Council works toward new surveillance protocol to avoid surprises

It seems Seattle’s City Council is joining its citizens in having enough with surveillance surprises.

The council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee discussed a new proposal, Council Bill 117730, on March 6 that will require all departments “to obtain City Council approval prior to acquiring certain surveillance equipment for Council review, requiring departments to adopt written protocols that address data retention, storage and access of any data obtained through the use of certain surveillance equipment.” The ordinance is expected to go before the full council for a vote on March 18.

The proposal comes on the heels of two civil rights headaches for the city with Seattle Police attempting to introduce flying drone surveillance (Mayor Mike McGinn killed the program in early February) and, more specific to West Seattle, a wireless mesh system of surveillance cameras that will monitor Puget Sound for potential terrorist threats, but can also be used by several law enforcement agencies to keep an eye on the streets. Public outcry to both proposals has been strong concerning privacy rights to not be monitored outside of a targeted criminal investigation, and the story has hit home locally with several cameras already installed (but not actively monitoring yet) along West Seattle shores.

As West Seattle resident Diane Nelson recently told the council, “I love Seattle; I don’t want to lose it to a police state where I’m afraid to leave my house because every time I walk out the door someone is watching me for some reason or another.”

CB 117730 can be seen as a direct response to the way SPD handled introducing the surveillance camera system. The cameras were procured through a homeland security grant, and when SPD presented plans to the council in May of 2012 only the homeland security function of keeping an eye on the port for potential terrorist threats was discussed. There was no mention of how the cameras could be used to monitor everyday people’s activity.

With the new bill, SPD would be required to run their plans by the council before obtaining surveillance equipment and explain, in detail, all potential uses and locations for the technology along with procedures for data storage and access. Surveillance systems already in the works, like the wireless mesh cameras, will have to go through the same process within 30 days if the bill passes.

Council Central Staffer Christa Valles explained in the March 6 meeting that “the legislation doesn’t establish the specific protocols … it is just setting up the process.”

“I see this as nip-it-in-the-bud legislation,” Councilmember Nick Licata, who was the primary author of the bill, said. “We don’t want to be surprised by finding out we have equipment that we really were not aware of.”

The proposal covers most surveillance cameras and drones, but makes exceptions for handheld or body-worn devices, cameras in police vehicles, traffic cameras, city building surveillance and cameras used to “monitor and protect the physical integrity of City infrastructure, e.g. Seattle Public Utilities reservoirs.”

There is also an exception made for temporary surveillance law enforcement sets up for specific criminal investigations, a provision not found in earlier drafts of the bill but insisted upon by SPD leadership.

“We send sort of mixed signals,” Councilmember Bruce Harrell said on March 6. “On the one hand, we are trying to use technology smartly and to increase our ability to have stronger public safety measures in place, and then on the other hand we value privacy and we value the expectation of privacy by our public and so those two sort of clashing values, without having strict protocols in place … there will be public outcry every time.”

“I have a sense we are going to be back here sooner rather than later talking about how the technology has now outpaced the language that we are using here (in this bill),” Council President Sally Clark said. “Chances are we will be back here in three to five years saying that this no longer satisfies what technology makes possible. And I do hope we have that conversation.”

As for the surveillance cameras already installed from Alki to Lincoln Park, Mayor McGinn has said they will not be turned on “until the public has a thorough chance to weigh in and we can make a decision,” as he told Q13 Fox News. Details on how that public vetting will play out have yet to be detailed.

Meanwhile, the two Dragonflyer X6 surveillance drones obtained by SPD, but cancelled by McGinn and SPD Chief John Diaz, “are in the boxes” and ready to be shipped back to the manufacturer, according to SPD Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer.

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