Seattle to take new look at Cal Anderson surveillance cameras

Three cameras perch on poles above the visitors to Cal Anderson Park capturing surveillance video of the area 24 hours a day. But no one is watching. Cal Anderson is now the only park in Seattle where cameras like these operate.

The future of the cameras is now in the hands of City Council member Sally Bagshaw, the new chair of the Parks and Seattle Center committee.

Cal Anderson’s cams (Photo: Justin Carder)

“The pilot program has since come to an end, and the Council will need to decide whether to allocate funds to extend the use of these cameras or to take them down,” said Philip Roewe, legislative aide to Bagshaw.

Bagshaw’s committee will take up the discussion of the cameras at their meeting next Thursday, March 18.

Former Mayor Greg Nickels quietly had the cameras turned on in February 2008 sparking public outcry. Community members and the ACLU criticized the “Big Brother” tactics.

“It was the Nickels administration’s idea in response to the declining city parks,” said Ann Corbitt, legislative aide to City Council member Tom Rasmussen. “The council didn’t have a chance to authorize them.”

At the time, the Nickels administration said the $850,000 camera program would deter drug dealing, vandalism, illicit sex and other illegal activities. But further budget cuts made maintaining the cameras impossible. Today, Cal Anderson is the only park where the cameras still operate. No money was budgeted to either remove or use the cameras already in place. All that City Hall could do was set up legislation for who could view the video and when. In June of 2008, the Council adopted Ordinance 122705 creating the Surveillance Camera Pilot Program and severely limiting their use.

 “When the council had a chance at the policy, the main concern was privacy and limit the amount of people viewing the tapes as possible,” said Corbitt. “We heard the call from the public and did what was asked for.”

Portion of Ordinance 122705

The result is spy cams stuck on autopilot. The city’s rules for utilizing the cams are so restrictive that even though the recording continues round-the-clock every day, the collected video has almost never been viewed.

Last October, the City Auditor’s office presented its findings on the effectiveness of the cameras to deter crime and provide safety. We’ve included a copy of the report attached to this post. The report concluded that the cameras had not been effective at deterring criminal activity and the only documented time SPD utilized any footage was during the investigation of reports of a roving gang attacking people in the park in August 2009.

“This testing period has shown inconclusive – the police haven’t used [the footage] and it hasn’t been a very active tool,” said Dewey Potter, spokesperson for Seattle Parks and Recreation.

Today, the only people who can view the tapes are a select few in the Seattle Police Department. While the Parks owns the equipment, staff cannot view, operate or utilize any of it, according to Potter.

SPD would not comment on the cameras and referred us back to Parks for more information.

“Parks has a very limited role,” said Potter. “We own the software but the footage is under lock and key at the police department. We only can get access to it if we make a public disclosure request.”

Contrary to Publicola’s recent item on the cameras where an unidentified source told the site that the cameras are inactive, Potter says the recording continues.

The City Auditor’s nine recommendations for the camera system (Click to view)

“To my knowledge, the cameras are still running,” said Potter. “They record digitally for two weeks then start over.”

Thursday’s City Council parks committee session will begin to address the future of Cal Anderson’s cameras and plans for cameras across Seattle. Bagshaw is expecting representatives from the Office of the City Auditor and SPD to attend. No word yet if anybody from Parks will be there or a rep from Mayor Mike McGinn’s office.

“Nobody has heard any hints of talk from the mayor’s office about the cameras,” said Kathy Mulady, spokesperson for the City Attorney’s office.

Given the backlash over the way the cameras were installed in the first place, it seems unlikely the Council will fund continued operation of the technology without significant changes to how the cameras are to be used and — maybe more importantly — how the public thinks about them.

“There is a new administration and a new council now,” said Corbitt. “They may have new ideas.”

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9 thoughts on “Seattle to take new look at Cal Anderson surveillance cameras

  1. “The report concluded that the cameras had not been effective at deterring criminal activity and the only documented time SPD utilized any footage was during the investigation of reports of a roving gang attacking people in the park in August 2009.”

    What a waste of resources, time and effort! So this proves you need feet on the street in order to deter crime.

  2. This does not prove you need feet on the street to deter crime. It may prove that having these cameras that nobody watches until after the fact does not deter crime.

  3. Big Brother Nickels is gone and the camera should be removed, since we as as city can not afford $850,000. Perhaps increase foot patrol?

  4. I expect with maintenance it’s a million dollar bill. I’d feel better having a bike or fot cop than a camera. The cop presence is a detterant– a camera recordingwould only help convict. More wasted money. Think of what a million ould have done for park improvements! My biggest gripe about the park– the lawn is becoming more weeds than grass. Few flowers are planted and there needs a new generation of trees planted as well.

  5. First, kudos to Seattle Parks for the development of Cal Anderson. The field and new basketball court (new compared to the age of the tennis courts), get a huge volume of use.

    The synthetic surface attracts users year around and on any given day people are playing frisbee football, soccer, baseball, etc., etc.; last week two guys were even playing cricket. In the summer, many different venues use the park for live and recorded music concerts and movies are shown on an outside big screen.

    I cannot believe the maintenance for the cameras would be that expensive; furthermore, I advocate that at least the cameras focused on the bathrooms remain–a lot of funny business goes down in those bathrooms; furthermore, due to a number of reasons, the park attracts many homeless and drug and alcohol afflicted which probably includes sex offenders–a childs play area with swings and climbing apparatus is only steps away from that bathroom; due to the profiles of the vagrants, this should be considered high risk.

    The public gets much benefit from Cal Anderson, and it serves every interest and ethnic/cultural activity imaginable. It should be studied as an example of a great success of an inner city athletic/recreation facility. The only thing I would like to see would be maybe another full basketball court, covered, and open air, so that people can play during the rain; also a backboard for people to teach and practice tennis is needed.

    Again, there is no dispute, in terms of use, Cal Anderson is a huge success.

  6. “funny business”?

    [like, stand up comedy sales?]

    I call “Weasel Words”.

    see also: “probably includes sex offenders”, “profiles of the vagrants”, etc.
    reality check:
    Those kids in the playground aren’t unattended. Get out of Bobby Morris Playfield, and watch Cal Anderson in person for a while: the ‘ethnically diverse’ & ‘culturally active’ homeless stay far away from the kids.

    Besides, many of us like our city parks urban, not sterile.

    “Cameras focused just on bathrooms” is just creepy, anyway.

  7. I love how not getting harrassed by a homeless person is somehow equated to being sterile. You don’t observe much in the park.

  8. “watch Cal Anderson in person for a while: the ‘ethnically diverse’ & ‘culturally active’ homeless stay far away from the kids”

    I’m fine with the drunks and the crusties but if the daytime catcallers and ones asking me if I want to “go somewhere and fuck” were “sterilized” right out of the park, I don’t think Seattle’d look any less “culturally active”.