ATF obtained ‘verbal agreement’ from Seattle City Light to install Central District surveillance cameras

This City Light pole is home to an ATF surveillance cam (Image: CHS)

This City Light pole is home to an ATF surveillance cam (Image: CHS)

In August, the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms caused a stir when the agency confirmed it quietly installed two surveillance cameras high-up on Seattle City Light poles along 23rd Ave at Union and Jackson.

While the ATF said Seattle Police were not involved, privacy activist Phil Mocek filed a request for the agreement federal agents reached with SCL to see how the City of Seattle may have assisted in the operation. It turns out, there was no agreement to send.

“It was more informal,” SCL spokesperson Scott Thomsen told CHS. “(ATF) had asked us and we agreed to let them place their cameras on our poles.” (Correction: We misquoted Thomsen’s statement and have updated the quote. City Light agreed to allow ATF to place the cameras. City Light did not install the equipment. Sorry for the error.)

Thomsen said such verbal agreements are within the authority of the SCL general manager.

SCL did not notify City Council or the City Attorney about the ATF request. A 2013 Seattle ordinance requires City agencies to notify City Council if they are using surveillance equipment. According to Thomsen, since SCL did not own the equipment or assist in gathering the surveillance, there was no reason to notify City Council. “We were merely allowing them to use the poles,” Thomsen said.

As chair of the public safety committee, City Council member Bruce Harrell has indicated he is considering a resolution to request agencies notify City Hall in such situations.

A wave of Central District shootings this summer prompted some community activists to call for police surveillance cameras to help keep the peace. Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Mayor Ed Murray have said they’re considering it.

In 2010, controversy over privacy and SPD policies lead to the eventual removal of surveillance cameras from Cal Anderson Park while SPD’s cameras at other area facilities remained in place. In 2013, SPD took down its powerful “mesh network” that had the potential to map the movement of digital devices throughout the city. Then-chief Jim Pugel said the city needed to have a “vigorous debate” on such surveillance activities.

Meanwhile, federal law enforcement cash has been flooding into Seattle this year. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was in town last month to highlight several of those crime prevention grants and last week SPD unveiled its Department of Justice-backed Real Time Crime Center.

Subscribe and support CHS Contributors -- $1/$5/$10 per month

41 thoughts on “ATF obtained ‘verbal agreement’ from Seattle City Light to install Central District surveillance cameras

  1. We the people of the CD have asked for cameras. Phil Mocek, you do not live here. You live in a nice safe & secure building on Capitol Hill. Your family & friends are not out on the streets of the CD when guns are firing.
    Phil, this does not concern you.
    Keep your agenda in your own hood. Stay out of ours.

    • I can’t imagine anyone involved in city affairs wouldn’t have thought that our elected officials should have been briefed on this.

      If they didn’t (as it was an informal agreement) then City Lights managers are quite tone deaf. London, UK has thousands upon thousands of cameras in their city. If that is the direction some want (I can hardly imagine it’d be a majority) then it’s a discussion that needs to happen publicly.

      As has been brought up, we talk about how sacrosanct the second amendment is, but we rarely discuss the importance of the fourth amendment as well.

      “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,[a] against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    • “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,[a] against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”

      You’d have a slightly better argument if the cameras were being installed in people’s houses. You have no expectation of privacy when outdoors.

      Which doesn’t make living in a surveillance state any less discomforting.

    • Someone pseudonymously wrote, “You have no expectation of privacy when outdoors.”

      I disagree.

      It’s reasonable to expect that when you’re walking down the public sidewalk having a quiet conversation with someone, somebody is not using a parabolic microphone from a rooftop to record that conversation. It’s reasonable to expect that when you’re in public, someone is not looking up your skirt with a camera from below.

      It’s reasonable to expect that you can go about your lawful business in public without our government recording your words, actions, locations, or associations. Our government should not be recording everyone’s public activity just in case some of those recordings are later useful to them. People should be treated as innocent until proven guilty.

    • It doesn’t matter whether you agree or not. Courts have ruled you have no expectation or right of privacy in the public domain. And handing criminals a gift by making sure the whole f’ing world knows something is happening isn’t exactly civic minded.

    • But the things you list are in fact illegal and criminal, I believe. And you conflate those examples as being the same as a surveillance camera and they are not.

    • Greg, the person who signed his or her comment “Privilege” wrote that “[y]ou have no expectation of privacy when outdoors.” I provided two examples of reasonable expectations of privacy when outdoors. Do you disagree, and find it unreasonable to expect that people do not use electronic devices to look up skirts or record quiet conversations of presumed-innocent people who are outdoors?

    • Taking pictures under your clothing is a violation of privacy because under your clothing is not public. If someone would take pictures of you and you are exposed to the public then you have no expectation of privacy. Same with conversations; your whispered words or quietly spoke words that are not within earshot of another person are presumed private. But if someone overhears your words in public, then it is not presumed to be private. Using electronics to hear someone isn’t working within the public domain, it is eavesdropping. So it continues, those things that are in private domaine, e.g., pictures under your clothing, continue to be private domain. But if you strip your clothes and run down the street naked, anyone can film it because it is public. Your example is a conflation of the difference between public and private domain.

    • Greg: Thank you for acknowledging that it is reasonable to expect some privacy even when in public. Just because someone can use a device to look up from the ground (e.g., camera or mirror), can use a device to record conversations from a distance, and can use a device to record images of everyone who walks down the street and store those images away for analysis or for use against some of those people later, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for them to do so.

      Our government should not be in the business of recording where we were, when we were there, or with whom we were when we were there.

      SCL staff quietly assisted ATF staff with doing something that would have been unlawful for SCL staff to do. They violated the spirit of the surveillance ordinance if not the letter of it.

    • They did not violate the intent of the ordinance. The ordinance exists so that if any department of the city wants to put up surveillance cameras that they inform the city council and attorneys. The ordinance does not address outside agencies requesting access for their own surveillance. I realization you may not like how the law works but these laws are discussed and debated as to the wording before passage and therefore the details do matter. As far as acknowledging a right to privacy in a public space I think it is more correct that private spaces exist in public space, such as under your clothing or a conversation between two people out of earshot of others. You should have no expectation that you will not be photographed in public. It is a public space and is not private. the area beneath your clothing is not public space. I’ve already explained it to you and you either don’t understand it or you ignore it because it doesn’t fit your narrative and creates cognitive dissonance with you. You can argue it all you want, but this has been debated over and over and it is lawful and is not a violation of your privacy rights. Further, your characterization that this was somehow a cloak and dagger, in the quite of the night characterization of the arrangement between SCL and the ATF is probably not something you can know and is in all likelihood a mischaracterization. It is absolutely appropriate to have surveillance cameras, especially in high crime areas.

    • Surveillance states are disturbing enough without resorting to strawman examples that are covered by new or pre-existing laws.

      But yeah, you win, I guess. Your privates can remain private when in public. But the law still says you have no reasonable expectation of privacy for your non-junk parts.

      The actual issue here–whether the ATF followed proper protocols when placing these cameras is a real issue worth exploring. But you can do that without resorting to fearmongering.

    • I live in the CD too and those cameras creep me out. I am not at all OK having surveillance devices installed without public notification and oversight, no matter what the excuse.

    • Hi,

      I do live in the CD and do not believe that cameras will make us any safer. Please don’t presume to speak for me.

      Thanks!

    • Yes, please! People are getting mugged in Cal Anderson park (where the cameras were removed) and shot around 23rd & Union (where Phil doesn’t want cameras). I’m sure some people don’t want “the man” to have their anarchist parades or whatever on video, but most of us living in CH and the CD would prefer the SPD has a better chance to catch the shooters and stabbers and grievous bodily harmers out there.

      But the ATF should let the city council know when they put in cameras!

    • See also: “CCTV boom has failed to slash crime, say police,” by Owen Bowcott, The Guardian, May 6, 2008

      Bowcott wrote:
      “Massive investment in CCTV cameras to prevent crime in the UK has failed to have a significant impact, despite billions of pounds spent on the new technology, a senior police officer piloting a new database has warned. Only 3% of street robberies in London were solved using CCTV images, despite the fact that Britain has more security cameras than any other country in Europe.”

    • So you cite a reporter from The Guardian, which is a publication with a social agenda as evidence? There are actually numerous studies out there, some that indicate inconclusive data and some that show decreased crime in certain settings. And while you throw out the blanket fear mongering statement about the potential abuses, you articulate none. I am not sure why you think that you have a right to privacy in public, but you don’t.

    • “Studies show that surveillance cameras have little to no effect on crime rates”

      This “review of studies” is an article on privacysos.org written by an ACLU intern. If you dig into the references, most of them make points like this: “In sum, cameras used in conjunction with larger crime-reduction strategies should be viewed as one tactical element, not a strategy in-and-of themselves.” Any pro-camera person would agree with this–no one’s saying cameras alone will do the work. I would agree that they’re probably not a preventative measure, but can be useful in tracking assailants after the crime.

    • DB wrote that cameras mounted in public places to record everyone’s actions “can be useful in tracking assailants after the crime.”

      Door-to-door searches of people’s homes can be useful, as well. The same goes for opening all of our mail, recording all of our phone calls, monitoring all of our mobile phones’ locations, and copying all of our e-mail.

      However, in this country–in theory at least–we don’t investigate all the innocent people just to find the few people who have done something wrong.

    • Which of course is why those cameras are so important. you attempt to suggest that those examples are the same as cameras. You are presenting a logical fallacy.

    • Phil, My old dead Nana rest her soul would tell you, to your face “you’d complain if you had a new noose to be hung with.” Literally, when are you not contrary? you must be a joy to live with in person. Not much will make crime go down, but these cameras would make it a HELL of a lot easier to prosecute the perps and get justice for victims, who I can assure you, don’t give a shit about privacy.

    • Line your own damn street with cameras, just stay away from mine, and you can keep your government surveillance too. It’s not going to make any of us any safer.

  2. The cat killing, mother-holding-infant-killing, pregnant woman kicking, lying ATF can go straight to hell. They should be disbanded. They are the least credible of law enforcement agencies. Worse than a Southern backwater Podunk sheriff’s department.

  3. I love it when liberals/progressives defend so much surveillance. If the name Bush was associated with any of this it would be a different story. If police could do more policing this would be unnecessary.

    • this may shock your tiny, tinfoil hat-covered, pinhead– many of us “liberals/progressives” can think in more than 1 dimension. Can you? And we realize that nothing is always black-or-white; and sometimes giving up some degree of privacy is a good tradeoff for the prospect of increased protection from muggings, shootings, assaults, etc.

      Besides that– although it’s irrelevant here– the name “Bush” would NEVER be associated with any of this, in this neighborhood, because there’s no $$money$$ in it for the bloated plutocrats. And it’s only liberal/progressive and/or people of color getting shot here, and of course we know all Wall St. and the Bushies don’t give a rat’s ass about any of those people.

    • Ha Ha. The feds are paying for this. And by the way, people of color, mostly African-Americans are doing far worse under current leadership than the previous one. Look at the stats. Very sad. Keep giving up your privacy if it makes you feel safer.

    • How black people are doing under the current administration is irrelevant to this conversation. I think Jim is reacting to you trying to pigeon hole all progressive people into a singular mindset. And while you might assert that, it isn’t true. And there is no privacy given up here, it is a f&$king public street! You don’t have privacy in public.

  4. This fiasco is more evidence that Seattle’s surveillance equipment ordinance has no teeth. For that and other reasons, It should be fixed.

    In 2013, after SPD’s drones were purchased and grounded, after after their downtown surveillance network (which expanded down Rainier) was installed and disabled, (though not completely) City Council took lots of heat from the public. It was obvious that they were derelict in their duty to provide oversight of the police department, and that SPD were regularly skirting public process by working with the feds to acquire and deploy public surveillance devices. The council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee, chaired by Bruce Harrell, mostly ignored public input on related legislation they introduced but stepped lively when the police chief requested weakening of that ordinance prior to passage.

    The ordinance has been ignored by nearly every affected department (to their credit, SPD are taking it seriously in at least some circumstances).

    That ordinance was passed to appease advocates of personal privacy and governmental transparency. Now, Harrell wants to add a law to request that city departments notify council when they partner with outside agencies to work around the existing law? What a joke. Let’s not be fooled again.

    • It’s not a work around and there was no violation. The city department was not engaging in surveillance, they merely allowed the ATF to place them on their equipment. That is not against the ordinance.

    • The ordinance says city agencies notify the city council when they deploy new surveillance toys. Now, you might argue that a bit o’ slight o hand means they don’t gotta follow the law, but that way lies crazy

    • Seattle Ordinance 124142 (SMC 14.18.20) states:

      “Any City department intending to acquire surveillance equipment shall obtain City Council approval via ordinance prior to acquisition. Prior to deployment or installation of the surveillance equipment, City departments shall obtain Council approval via ordinance of operational protocols, unless applicable operational protocols were previously approved by ordinance.”

    • You reciting the ordinance is not an argument against the interpretation. No city department deployed or installed the equipment, period. Clearly you have no experience in this area, because the letter of the law is important.

  5. For what it is worth, and I am not a security or privacy expert….I own the property across Union which is now Uncle Ike’s and Sea Suds Car Wash. When I bought the properties they were serious crime hotspots. Especially the car wash with drug dealing and prostitution. I put cameras up everywhere (along with better lighting) and crime disappeared basically instantly. Lots of signs telling people they were being filmed. There is no expectation of privacy in public spaces and especially not on private property. I would rather get rid of crime than have the crime happen and use the footage to catch a bad guy. If the cameras help just a little I don’t see the harm – only positive.

  6. All SPD needs is for some non city entity to setup cameras everywhere. Heck just put some wide area surveillance systems on the top of a cell phone towers.

    • I wish the East Precinct would get somebody (ANYBODY) to set up surveillance cameras atop their building and pointed towards Cal Anderson Park. I’m fed up with the crime going on in that place.

    • While it must’ve been exciting for you to bust out those links, you might want to re-read that city auditor report since it doesn’t exactly say what you claim it says.

      In fact, it cautions against drawing the sort of conclusion you’ve drawn, because they determined effectiveness by literally talking to 100 people one day. And they could only measure crime in a small window of the entire program’s timeframe.

      “Because of the methodology used for the survey in this Audit, we believe that its results
      should be interpreted with caution.”

      “We agree that the survey’s methodology limitations prevent generalizing from the results.”

      “We were unable to determine whether the surveillance cameras in Cal Anderson Park had a deterrent effect on crime due to data limitations and a time frame, restricted by ordinance requirements, which limited our scope to three months of data. ”

      “The purpose of this work was not to evaluate the effectiveness of the cameras.”

      Their conclusions weren’t to scrap the program, but to set clear goals, improve public awareness, blah blah blah.

    • Good catch! And of course, the proof is in the pudding. We now have a Cal Anderson park which is incredibly unsafe and a number of violent crimes and robberies are committed there and only a back from the precinct.

  7. This is yet another example of why the utilities should be removed from city government and place under an independent utility board of commissioners.

    They’re a business, but they’re run as a slush fund for city programs and politician’s whims – particularly City Light. If the ATF wants to pay a rental to use the pole – and the article is mum on that – then they should be able to without any hand-wringing about “privacy”

    Sawant has shown herself to be particularly inept at oversight, which is ironic, as City Light is perhaps the most Socialist organization in the state.