Black community leaders call for surveillance cameras

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Flanked by Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Mayor Ed Murray, Reverend Harriett Walden insisted the news conference start with a prayer. The gathering at First African Methodist Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill was, in large part, a symbol of cooperation between the black community, the Seattle Police Department and the mayor’s office to make Seattle streets safer from shootings.

But, more than just engaging in a show of solidarity and shared values with city leaders, Walden and others, including Metropolitan Urban League President and District 3 Seattle City Council candidate Pamela Banks, also advocated for placing surveillance cameras in high crime parts of Seattle. “We need convictions,” said Walden, arguing for providing new tools for police investigating gun incidents.

Neither O’Toole nor Murray said the city is currently pursuing camera surveillance for crime prevention. But, said O’Toole, the police department was interested in starting the conversation.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the city has worked on surveillance cameras before. The mesh network, as the system of cameras was called, was quietly installed and then, after public and political outcry, never put to use. The main concern was one of privacy.

The urgings of Walden and Banks come in response to what has felt like an active period of gun violence in Seattle, including a string of shootings in Seattle’s Central District. As first reported in the Seattle Times, Seattle Police Department statistics have shown a marked increase of shots fired in the city limits: 204 since Jan. 1, up from 168 during the same period in 2014. So far, 38 people have been injured. (Homicides, however, have fallen from 10 at a comparable point last year to five so far in 2015.)

If Seattle does entertain the idea of installing surveillance cameras, how would that be any different from the mesh network? The difference, said Murray, is “we’re hearing from the community this time that they want cameras.” And the idea advanced by Walden would be much more limited — targeted on particularly high-crime intersections or spots. Chief O’Toole told reporters that a given community would have to come forward and request that cameras be installed.

Furthermore, the cameras would only be turned on at sunset. “I think there’s a way to do this to protect people’s privacy,” said Murray.

Nevertheless, any kind of camera system is sure to get pushback from privacy advocates. President of the Seattle Privacy Coalition Jan Bultman is among those skeptics. For Bultman, the issue is that there are not yet any overarching regulations on privacy in Seattle. “I think it's absurd at this point that we are still treating individual data-gathering projects as one-offs,” she said. “I want to see the Privacy Impact Assessment program up and running before we deploy more technologies, period." That's a city effort, undertaken in the wake of the camera network controversy, to create standards for protecting privacy. "I think any other approach is a slippery slope toward a full-on surveillance state.”

But for Walden, the issue goes beyond privacy. If there’s a backlash because of surveillance concerns, she said, “We’ll take the heat.”

The mayor also introduced Sean Green – a data analyst on what Murray calls his Innovation Delivery Team. Green will head up a Michael Bloomberg-funded task force to scour the country and analyze data to find effective means to reduce gun violence.

The meeting was not entirely cordial, reflecting a community hesitant to trust the police or the mayor’s office. One man grilled Murray on why marijuana shops were allowed so close to churches. When told about a march happening Thursday evening, another woman shouted, “How many marches can we have?”

But Reverend Walden held her ground, continuing to pledge cooperation and collaboration. She also admitted, “If this was an easy issue, it would be done by now.”

Murray echoed her, with a sobering statement: “No one seems to know a way out of this.”

  

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