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Federal agents confirm they quietly installed surveillance cameras along 23rd Ave in the CD


One of the ATF cameras installed along 23rd Ave. (Photo: CHS)

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.

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)

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.

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15 thoughts on “Federal agents confirm they quietly installed surveillance cameras along 23rd Ave in the CD

  1. Progressives LOVE surveillance. They just don’t like it when it is initiated by Republicans. This is pretty amazing. As for the tax on guns, it doesn’t work in Chicago and it won’t work here. And as usual, they want the $$ for “gun prevention programs..” What are those, who administers them and how much do they cost?

  2. Note to Central District gangs: avoid 23rd avenue. Feel free to shoot-it-up on MLK and other CD streets, but there are cameras on 23rd.

    You’re welcome.
    Your friends in the press

  3. The cameras were requested by some long time African American activists who are trying to work on the violence from within the community who knew a bunch of white liberals would get their panties in a twist about it and who don’t live in the areas most impacted by the recent violence. Such is the world we live in.

    • There hasn’t really been that much “white liberal” objection to these cameras, has there? Other than Phil Mocek, because that’s his thing…

    • SO WHAT who does or doesn’t get their panties in a twist. If they were ever going to be of any use, they won’t now that everyone knows they’re there. Might as well take ’em down now.

      Unless…..they’re actually somewhere else that isn’t being divulged….

  4. Unfortunately cameras don’t get to the root of what drives the violence. They just take away rights to privacy and an opportunity to catch folks after the damage may have been done.

    To Jim’s point, this may likely just push them a few blocks over which doesn’t really solve anything at all.

    Just like 3rd Ave is clean and now Cal Anderson is a mess.

      • No you don’t. But often these cameras have the opportunity to view into windows of homes. Soon we’ll have a multi-floor residential building on that corner and those folks shouldn’t be on camera while in their homes.

  5. Install some in Cal Anderson and in the Pike Pine corridor. While they don’t solve the root causes of violent gang activity, they provide an invaluable tool for catching and prosecuting the perpetrators and thus preventing further acts of violence by the same handful of bad seeds.

  6. I would love to have those cameras on the corner by my house. If you have ever lived with constant gang activity and shootings near your home, you would understand.

  7. Since when do criminals pay for guns or ammunition? Let alone taxes on them….
    The idea that gun laws will ever stop the lawless is absurd. it just makes it a more profitable black market .. duh..