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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

New Police Use of Homeland Security Money Dropped from Today's City Council Agenda

Posted by on Wed, Dec 4, 2013 at 1:39 PM

Here's a first sentence that sounds deceptively boring: Earlier this week, the city council announced the agenda for this afternoon's meeting of the public safety committee.

One item in particular jumped out:

4. C.B. 117996 (PDF Version)

Relating to security from terrorism; authorizing the City to partner with the State of Washington and King County to receive financial assistance from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office for State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness under the Urban Areas Secuirty Initiative Grant for Federal Fiscal Year 2012; authorizing an application for allocation of funds under that agreement; amending the 2013 Adopted Budget Ordinance 124058 by increasing appropriations to the Seattle Police Department and Seattle Fire Department and accepting revenues; and, ratifying and confirming prior acts, all by a three-fourths vote of the City Council.


Presenters: Captain Ron Leavell, Lt. Mark Mount, and Chris Steel, SPD

Hm. The council's public safety committee breezing through a 10-minute review of what the SPD might do with money from the Department of Homeland Security? Sound familiar?

A drone that was grounded.
  • The Stranger
  • A drone that was grounded.

It's how Seattle got its surveillance surprises over the past year: the drones, waterfront cameras, and mesh network that the SPD quietly bought and installed without going out of their way to share the details with the rest of us. (To be fair, the council didn't exactly go out of their way to dig up any.)

And it's why the SPD has had to go on mea culpa tours of community meetings to explain to baffled (and sometimes hostile) crowds what these things were, how we got them, and whether we need them.

That pattern didn't work out so well: the drones have been grounded, the cameras are supposedly off (or at least not being actively used), and the mesh network has been disabled.

So what DHS-funded projects were on today's agenda?

Some of them look innocuous enough—training for first responders, safeguards against catastrophe in the event of "structural collapse," and improving ways to warn "vulnerable populations" about emergencies.

But project number nine on the list raises some questions—it funds facial-recognition technology that would allow the SPD to cross-check photos of unknown "suspects" with a large database. Which could be fine, if used properly.

But why repeat the mistakes of the past by rubber-stamping another DHS-funded technology that might have some surveillance implications that we should think about first?

A mesh router that was turned off.
  • Malcolm Smith
  • A mesh router that was turned off.

I called council members Harrell and O'Brien (chair and vice-chair of the committee) for more details. Council staffers told me that Harrell had asked for some more information about the technology and its use from the SPD, as well as active engagement with the ACLU regarding limits on its use.

Then, this morning, Harrell's legislative assistant Vinh Tang emailed me to say the DHS money had been dropped from today's agenda:

Because of Councilmember Harrell’s push for SPD to conduct additional work to engage ACLU and other stakeholders in the policy development for the software system, the legislation is being held at committee today and will be reintroduced at another time. The committee will not vote on the legislation until a thorough and transparent public process is completed.

Sounds like a good idea—thorough and transparent public discussions about other DHS-funded, surveillance-related technology would have saved the SPD, and the rest of us, a lot of grief.

The short version sounds like a nothing: An item got dropped from today's city council meeting on public safety. But there's a whole lot of background—and sound and fury—that goes into why that 10-minute conversation is being postponed.


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Joe Szilagyi 1
Does anyone else think at this point that we need a dedicated SPD committee to oversee them?
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on December 4, 2013 at 1:59 PM · Report this

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