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.
“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.
“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.”