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.