Drones join Cal Anderson cams in SPD surveillance tech junk pile

Seattle will be trading in two $40,000+ surveillance drones acquired by the police department with a 2010 federal grant. Mayor Mike McGinn made the announcement Thursday afternoon in a brief statement:

“Today I spoke with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority. The vehicles will be returned to the vendor.”


The move comes following a week of public outcry as Wednesday’s City Council hearing provided a focal point for critics of the surveillance technology. The Council’s proposed ordinance would have banned the use of drones for general surveillance and required police to obtain a warrant before using the remote control helicopters except in emergency situations.

The Draganflyer X6.

Last fall, we reported on the privacy concerns surrounding the Draganflyer X6 drones after the acquisition was first revealed to the public. The SPD was one of 50 organizations that received permission from the federal government to operate the unmanned aerial vehicles.

The SPD said the drones would be tightly controlled, regulated and would not be used to conduct random surveillance.

These systems are intended to help us protect public safety by gathering visual information in specific situations where sending in an officer would not be safe, or to take crime scene photography that a human being could not easily capture. 

Seattle Police have not yet released a statement about the decision to kill the program.

The outcry from this week’s public hearing on the drones was reminiscent of the 2010 debate over removing surveillance cameras from Cal Anderson Park. 

Meanwhile, SPD has another set of cameras that could be the next target for privacy advocates. These cams suddenly appeared along Seattle’s waterfront thanks to a $5 million federal Homeland Security grant.

12 thoughts on “Drones join Cal Anderson cams in SPD surveillance tech junk pile

  1. Why not give the drones to USGS, NOAA, and Fish and Wildlife so that they can gather some useful “visual information” on migrating whales, wolf packs, volcanic eruptions, fly them into hurricanes. Put Homeland Security’s petty cash to use for something good.

  2. We say no to DRONES!!! NO DRONES! We say no to DRONES!! NO DRONES? LOL.

    McGinn and Diaz should have toooooootally chanted that for their statements instead of all that dry stuff.

  3. The idea of giving the drones to a federal agency, over whom we have the least control, to “gather useful visual information” with no say over how, when, etc. is okay but to use them under tightly controlled situations, usually with a warrant, for public safety is big brother?

  4. Considering the amount of crime in the Capitol Hill area, I’m all for surveillance cameras and drones. Bring ‘em on! The more muggers, burglers, drug dealers, anarchists and vandals they can catch, the better.

  5. These particular drones were not all that useful.  Their maximum flight time was 10 minutes, and they cost $41,000 each.  Mayor McGinn didn’t declare that our police will be prohibited from using autonomous and/or remotely-operated devices to perform general surveillance of the public; he said we’re not going to use these.

    Though it was the right thing to do, I think this was largely a political maneuver.  McGinn is up for reelection, he’s tied his reputation to his Chief of Police (who leads a force found by the US DoJ to engage in constitutional violations one in five times they use force) he has nearly a dozen competitors for Mayor, and one of those competitors is Bruce Harrell.  Harrell is chair of Seattle City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee.  This week, he introduced a bill (C.B. 117707; supporting memo, CRS report on drones in domestic surveillance referenced within; video of the hearing, and some good reporting on it) that would put some limits on the use of the two drones SPD bought last year with DHS grant money.

    I suspect that bill will die now that the pressure is off. Instead, I would like to see it modified to be a bit less specific to drones, instead achieving the following:

    Restrict city staff use of facial recognition and other biometric identification technology on any device to confirming the identity of the target of a warrant
    Forbid city staff from equipping any remotely-operated or autonomous device with weapons
    Forbid city staff from conducting general surveillance of the public with any device
    Forbid city staff use of any remotely-operated or autonomous recording device without warrant

    But that seems unlikely, because people are so focused on the hot-button topic of drones.

    Much focus will be shifted to a H.B. 1771 in the Washington Legislature, which would establish “standards for the use of public unmanned aircraft systems.” It’s a good start, and it would be nice to see statewide regulations so cities whose citizens don’t have the gumption that Seattle’s do will also be somewhat protected, but I don’t think it goes far enough.

    Meanwhile, the same police department who scrapped the two drones, who were recently forced into a consent decree by the DoJ because of their rampant abuses of power, have secured more grant money from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to deploy a network of 30 pole-mounted surveillance cameras, 160 wireless access points, and miles of fiber optic cable around the city, “for port security.” The same grant—which they administer for everyone in the area—resulted in them purchasing cameras “for the stadiums and things” to which they have at least partial access, says Seattle Police Department Commander of Special Operations, Assistant Chief Paul A. McDonagh #4708 (the same guy who was head manager of the SPD East Precinct when in 2010 they and the Mayor side-stepped City Countil and snuck surveillance cameras into my neighborhood park before we successfully lobbied for their removal). McDonagh says the primary use of this $5MM system will be overturned boats and kayaks. “I don’t call it a surveillance camera—surveillance to me implies someone is sitting there watching it all the time. These are just cameras watching a general area,” he says.

    The wireless surveillance mesh network project “is borderline problematic,” says another Mayoral candidate, ex-police officer and current member of City Council, Tim Burgess.

  6. I agree. The only people who need fear surveillance technology are the criminals. If you’re law-abiding, why worry about them?

    And why did the SPD buy the drones in the first place? Someone didn’t do their homework to determine if they would be useful. What happens to the money that was spent on them? Is it just lost, or is it refunded to the SPD for other use?

  7. Oh, and the guy SPD put in charge of the drone program?  Greg W. Sackman #6052, who was the head cop on the scene during the bloody 2005 police beating of Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes on the sidewalk outside a bar here on Capitol Hill.  The police were detaining Barnes’ friend for tossing a piece of paper on the ground, and when Barnes asked why they were doing it, they beat the shit out of him.  Go look at the photo.

    Sackman watched the beating, and was later found by SPD’s internal investigations to have acted inappropriately.  Not long after that, he was promoted from Sergeant to Lieutenant.  A few years later, somebody thought we ought to trust him to oversee a system of flying surveillance cameras.

  8. Bob, do you ever close the blinds on your home’s windows? Do you wrap private documents in an envelope, or send them on postcards? That I’m out in public is not justification for our government to record where I’ve been and what I said, stockpiling all that information for later in case it’s useful.

    The costs of general surveillance of the public outweigh the benefits.

    Public CCTV is repeatedly found not to be an effective deterrent to crime. I provided copies of the following to City Council a couple years ago after they found out about the cameras Nickels and McDonagh sneaked into Cal Anderson Park:

    S.F. public housing cameras no help in homicide arrests
    Heather Knight, Chronicle Staff Writer
    Tuesday, August 14, 2007
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/08/14/

    CCTV ‘not a crime deterrent’
    Wednesday, 14 August, 2002, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/2192911.stm

    CCTV ‘fails to reduce crime’
    Friday, 28 June, 2002, 14:41 GMT 15:41 UK
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/2071397.stm

    ACLU: What Criminologists and Others Studying Cameras Have Found
    June 25, 2008
    http://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/expert-findings-s
    http://www.aclu.org/files/images/asset_upload_file708_35775.

    THE SCOTTISH OFFICE CENTRAL RESEARCH UNIT
    CRIME AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE RESEARCH FINDINGS No 30
    The Effect of closed circuit television on recorded crime rates
    and public concern about crime in Glasgow
    http://www.scotcrim.u-net.com/researchc2.htm

    CITRIS study on SF public cameras released
    http://www.citris-uc.org/news/SFcamerastudy
    http://www.citris-uc.org/files/CITRIS%20SF%20CSC%20Study%20F

    CCTV CAMERA EVALUATION
    The crime reduction effects of public CCTV cameras in the City
    of Philadelphia, PA installed during 2006
    February, 2008
    http://www.temple.edu/cj/misc/PhilaCCTV.pdf

  9. Save for the usual voices that are always in favor of more authoritarian surveillance and who have already posted their opinions, isn’t it interesting to hit the link in the above article for the West Seattle blog and read how the populace there feels? They are being subjected to what are obviously unwanted cameras watching them along Alki, etc., (surveillance cameras that were installed without public notice) and object but there are strident voices that are all in favor here on the Hill of this sort of government intrusion. Fascinating differences in two areas of Seattle. Although I know that we have had several incidents recently, if crime-prevention is actually the true motive here, why aren’t there cameras in the Belltown neighborhood and around more of the bars where there have been very violent attacks? Or are there? Does anyone know?

  10. They’re not going to find overturned boats and capsized kayaks (what McDonagh claims the typical use of the $5MM wireless mesh surveillance network will be) in Belltown. However, as grant administrators, SPD are also spending DHS grant money on surveillance cameras for private entities who can then share the recordings with SPD and “the Homeland Security nexus” (again, McDonagh’s words from the interview Tracy Record conducted).