Federal Agency Installs Surveillance Grid over Major City without Local Government?

Seattle is now under a surveillance grid of cameras thanks to the BATF, who did not consult the Seattle PD or city government.

When I first saw this story I thought it must be one of those hoax/satire sites that sometimes fool conservatives. But it looks like a bona fide news site dedicated to happenings and issues related to the Seattle area. The headline: “ATF confirms surveillance cameras installed throughout Seattle.”

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.

It is a strange partnership when the federal agency gets to set up surveillance without informing or involving the local government. The Seattle PD seems to be put in the role of junior partner in this relationship.

You will notice above that the story claims that the cameras are spread “throughout” the city. Other news sources mention only two cameras. For example, the first paragraph of the Seattle Times story:

Federal agents have installed two video-surveillance cameras in Seattle’s Central District as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

But then we read a few details that seem to imply more. Here is how they report on statements from ATF Special Agent Brian Bennett:

He would not say if there are additional cameras installed around Seattle.

An aide to City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the council’s public-safety committee, said Harrell wasn’t told the cameras were being installed.

Harrell may send a letter or introduce a resolution urging federal authorities to keep the council informed about such installations, said the aide, Vinh Tang.

The council passed an ordinance in 2013 prohibiting the installation of surveillance equipment without council notification, but that requirement didn’t apply in this case because the ATF is a federal agency, Tang said.

Officials were asked about the cameras as early as July 7, when a Twitter user posted a photo of one to try to get information from the city.

Bennett said the ATF did not have to obtain federal warrants for the cameras since they were placed in public places where people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

“These cameras are related to a specific investigation. We’ve not acknowledged there are any other cameras we have in use,” Bennett said.

So Bennett is pointedly refusing to discuss if or where there are other cameras. Which does seem to make it probable that there are more cameras. Furthermore, the story reveals that the local city government had no knowledge of the surveillance cameras.

I understand that no one has an expectation of privacy in a public place. My concern is that Federalism seems like a dead letter under this kind of arrangement.

The Rev. Harriett Walden, of Mothers For Police Accountability, said last month that her group was calling “for cameras in hot spots with sunset times and sends out a call for volunteers to come forward with information and engage in activities to address the gun violence head-on.”

But surveillance cameras have been a controversial issue in Seattle. In 2013, the city agreed to shutter 30 surveillance cameras purchased with federal dollars and installed along the waterfront after citizens and civil-rights activists protested what they said was an invasion of privacy.

In my opinion, I would rather have cameras under control of local and presumably more accountable government, rather than have a federal agency install them and not bother to tell anyone in local government.