Last month, a wave of Central District shootings prompted some community activists to call for police surveillance cameras to help keep the peace. While the Seattle Police Department and Mayor Ed Murray said they were studying the issue, federal agents quietly moved ahead.
Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms confirmed it was the agency behind two cameras installed high-up on light poles at 23rd and Union and 23rd and Jackson.
ATF spokesperson Brian Bennet emailed the following statement to CHS:
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has placed video cameras in Seattle locations to support an ongoing federal criminal investigation. These cameras belong to our agency. They weren’t requested by nor are they monitored by the Seattle Police Department.
As our investigation is ongoing, we have no further comment on this subject.
ATF’s surveillance activities are part of the work it carries out as head agency of the Puget Sound Regional Crime Gun Task Force. Bennet did not divulge any further details on how the cameras were being used, only that recordings were being downloaded to a hard drive and not actively being monitored.
In a July community meeting, Murray said the city was still in the process of “looking at” deploying advanced surveillance cameras and also promised that, unlike past use of cameras in Seattle, the process to deploy the technology would be fully public. Speaking before ATF representatives, Murray and SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole were both apparently unaware of the agency’s camera plan at the time.
During that meeting, Reverend Harriet Walden said her Mothers for Police Accountability should be counted among the city’s community groups calling for the new cameras. “We want convictions,” she said.
The City’s surveillance ordinance requires city departments to obtain permission to install cameras, but that doesn’t apply to federal agencies. The ATF did obtain permission from Seattle City Light to access its light poles, according to spokesperson Scott Thomsen. Thomsen would not say if there were other surveillance cameras on SCL property, but the utility would continue to support law enforcement agencies in the future.
Seattle City Light has cooperated with law enforcement agencies when they have asked to place cameras on our facilities. We plan to continue to support law enforcement in such requests in the future.
As chair of the public safety committee, City Council member Bruce Harrell has indicated he is considering a resolution to request agencies notify the City before installing surveillance equipment.
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.
Privacy concerns over the use of surveillance cameras has grown in places like Chicago and Oakland, where police departments already have large systems in place.
Last week, East Precinct officers had their hands full collecting shell casings from another round of shootings. No injuries were reported after officers responded to calls of shots fired around 24th and Olive Wednesday afternoon.
20% of reported assaults involving firearms in 2015 have taken place between Madison and I-90 according to SPD data compiled by CHS:
ATF technicians were able to connect 10 recent shootings in Seattle to one handgun — and presumably one shooter — thanks to ballistics analysis.
Meanwhile, the City Council is moving legislation forward sponsored by ex-cop Tim Burgess to institute a $25 tax on gun sales and a 5 cent tax on each round of ammunition. The city estimates the taxes would raise up to $500,000 per year. Burgess said taxpayers paid more than $12 million in 2014 to offset unpaid medical bills for gunshot victims at Harborview. The revenue from the tax would fund a two-year gun violence prevention program.
UPDATE: The City Council unanimously passed the gun and ammunition tax Monday, as well as a measure that would require mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms to SPD. Burgess, a strong frontrunner in the Position 8 City Council race, thanked his colleagues in a statement:
Every day, the general public pays the enormous cost of gun violence. Gun violence is a public health crisis in our city and our nation. City government can and must pursue innovative gun safety measures that save lives and save money. As it has in other areas of policy, Seattle can lead the way in local solutions.