Seattle City Council OKs rules for use of surveillance cameras

SEATTLE -- The Seattle City Council approved rules Monday for the use of surveillance cameras along the waterfront. The vote paved the way for cameras along Alki Beach and Elliott Bay to be turned on.

Under the measure approved by the City Council, city departments would have to describe how they would use the cameras (or drones) and the council then would have to hold a public hearing on the proposal before giving its approval. The measure, however, included language that exempts the Seattle Police Department if the device is part of a criminal investigation or approved under a search warrant.

The surveillance cameras have generated a public backlash ever since they were installed along part of Seattle`s waterfront a couple of months ago.  Will they be able to look into homes? Who will they be tracking and who will have access to the tapes?

McGinn, who originally signed off on the cameras to help with Port of Seattle security, backed off after the mini-revolt by West Seattle residents and said the waterfront cameras would not be turned on until after the public had a chance to voice concerns.

On Monday, members of the City Council unanimously adopted what they argue are clear and strict guidelines about how cameras, drones or any other type or surveillance equipment will be used.

“Before this city buys any surveillance equipment or drones, they (city departments) cannot do so without the approval of the council and they cannot put them into operation until we sign off on the protocols,” Councilman Nick Licata said.

Lawmakers argued that requiring clear protocols of any city department that wants to use surveillance equipment will prevent any privacy problems in the future.

“We do not want these cameras to go into the homes of any residences or any of the businesses – their windows, for example,” Councilman Bruce Harrell said. “So we will make sure that we have the right protections in place to prevent that.”

But a few members of the public in the audience chanted, “Vote you out! Vote you out!” as they walked out of the City Council chambers.

One woman outside the chambers said, “Frankly, there has been so much (public) outcry over this that, I mean, the public doesn't want this. So why are we still going down this path?”

Andrew Shaw of the ACLU-Washington said, “We are under constant surveillance, and that is frightening.”

The ACLU questions whether surveillance cameras even serve their stated purpose.

“There`s no evidence that I`ve seen from any reports or research that`s been done that show that cameras prevent crimes,” Shaw said.

The ACLU opposed Monday’s vote, arguing the new rules don’t include an annual review to determine whether the rules are being followed.

City officials haven’t said when the cameras along the waterfront might be turned on.