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ATF confirms surveillance cameras installed throughout Seattle

Credit: A. Syn

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) confirmed Thursday that they have placed video cameras throughout Seattle to, according to Special Agent Brian Bennett, “support an ongoing federal criminal investigation.” This comes in response to questions regarding a camera installed on 23rd Avenue and S. Jackson St. The location of other cameras is unclear.

ATF is the lead agency of the Puget Sound Regional Crime Gun Task Force – a partnership to reduce gun violence that includes the Seattle Police Department, Washington State Patrol and the Washington State Department of Corrections. However, according to Bennett, these cameras belong to ATF and were not requested nor monitored by the Seattle Police Department.

Bennett would not disclose whether the camera was active 24 hours a day or, as has been suggested by city officials, only after sunset. He did say the data was being downloaded to a hard drive and not being actively monitored.

Seattle Police Department Public Information Sergeant Sean Whitcomb echoed Bennett, confirming that the cameras were not the property of SPD. However, when asked whether SPD knew that ATF had installed these cameras, Whitcomb said he didn’t know. “All I know is it’s not an SPD camera,” he said.

In mid-July, at First African Methodist Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, black community leaders, including Reverend Harriett Walden and Seattle City Council Candidate Pamela Banks called for such surveillance in Seattle as a response to the increased number of shots fired in Seattle city limits this year. “We want convictions,” said Walden.

Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Mayor Ed Murray were also present, flanked by members of ATF. Neither O’Toole nor Murray explicitly expressed support for surveillance. They did say, however, that unlike the secretive “Meshnet” surveillance system installed by the Seattle Police Department in 2013, they were more willing to consider cameras because community members were the ones calling for it. “I think there’s a way to do this to protect people’s privacy,” said Murray.

Not surprisingly, the Seattle Privacy Coalition pushed back. “I think it’s absurd at this point that we are still treating individual data-gathering projects as one-offs,” said Privacy Coalition President Jan Bultmann. “I want to see the Privacy Impact Assessment program up and running before we deploy more technologies, period.” This refers to a city effort undertaken in the wake of the camera network controversy, with a goal of creating standards for protecting privacy. “I think any other approach is a slippery slope toward a full-on surveillance state.”

Lee Colleton, a member of the Seattle Privacy Coalition, first noticed the camera on July 7 – a week before the aforementioned church meeting – during a march down Martin Luther King Way, an act of solidarity with the shooting of nine members of a church in Charleston, SC. Colleton had a pocket telescope that he used to examine the camera, on which he found a phone number. This number traced back to Todd Reeves, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, works for ATF installing surveillance systems.

It’s unclear when exactly the cameras were installed. A Google Maps photo taken on the street corner in July of 2014 shows no camera, suggesting it was installed in the last year. But one thing for sure is that the camera was in place at the time of the meeting in the church. Whitcomb couldn’t say whether Chief O’Toole knew it was there at the time.

The Mayor’s Office didn’t immediately return a call for comment. Scott Thomsen of Seattle City Light, which owns the light poles on which the cameras are mounted, said the department was unaware of the cameras until Mr. Colleton pointed them out. “The situation is one where we have allowed law enforcement agencies to install cameras where appropriate,” he said.

Bultmann questions Thomsen’s assertion that City Light didn’t know of the cameras. “It’s implausible that the city has no input in the camera installation process,” she said. “City employees must have been at least peripherally involved in the actual mounting of the cameras.”

Bennett of ATF confirmed the cameras were installed to assist in a single investigation, but would not provide details as the case is ongoing. Presumably, it is part of the task force’s efforts to reduce gun violence in Seattle. The law enforcement partnership, for example, has been tracking a single gun for two years as part of its efforts.

Chair of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee Councilmember Bruce Harrell was never informed of the cameras, said Harrell aide Vinh Tang. Although the council passed a bill in 2013 that forbid installing surveillance equipment without the knowledge of the Seattle City Council, ATF is a federal department and therefore not beholden to that particular piece of legislation. Tang said Councilmember Harrell might send a letter or introduce a non-binding resolution in the next week urging the feds to keep the City Council abreast of surveillance equipment.

So far the implication is that ATF was able to install these cameras without anyone in the City of Seattle learning about it. Further, it is unclear whether these cameras will be removed at the end of the investigation or if they are permanent. Crosscut will update as more details emerge.

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