Police and other city departments would have to get approval before buying surveillance equipment, under a measure being considered by the Seattle City Council.
The legislation follows revelations over the past few months that the Police Department purchased drones and installed surveillance cameras around the waterfront without public notice.
“We don’t want to be surprised by finding out we have equipment we didn’t know about,” said Councilmember Nick Licata at a meeting of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee on Wednesday.
The legislation would require a department seeking the surveillance equipment to draft rules for its use and deployment as well as rules for how any data collected would be stored, used and accessed by the public.
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The guidelines would face review by the City Council.
A vote on the proposal could come later this month.
Deputy Police Chief Clark Kimerer said the police have “no interest in abridging anybody’s privacy. Our only interest is in public safety.” He said the police could obtain a warrant for any surveillance data that related to a serious threat or crime.
But he cautioned there could be a chasm between the department’s interest in exploring new policing tools and the council’s efforts to limit their use.
“The technology that’s coming is stunning,” Kimerer said.
About a dozen people testified in favor of the legislation, including representatives of the Seattle Human Rights Commission and the ACLU.
Several people asked that the measure include detailed protections about public access to any data collected and a right for citizens to sue the government over the use or abuse of the information.
The Rev. Harriett Walden, of Mothers for Police Accountability, said, “If there’s too much surveillance in the public square, will America still be America? Who is going to use the information and who will it be used against? Historically, it’s been used against African Americans.”
Allegra Searle-LeBel, who identified herself as an artist and technologist, called for oversight of departments requesting the equipment and using the data.
“There should be public accountability about times, dates, locations, targets, who’s ordering, who’s approving, who else has access to the data. Otherwise, we will have no recourse when our rights are being violated.,” she said.
Committee Chairman Bruce Harrell said that without written rules about obtaining and using new technology, “there will be a public outcry every time.”
Harrell, a candidate for Seattle mayor, was critical of Mayor Mike McGinn’s decision last month to scrap the Police Department’s plan to use two surveillance drones because of the public concern about privacy.
Harrell said the police should be able to use new technology to fight crime and that city leaders should help draft rules for how that technology is used.
Licata noted the federal government already has 11,000 drones and that private manufacturers are producing many new types of surveillance equipment.
“This is not a problem that’s going away,” Licata said.
Lynn Thompson: email@example.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter:@lthompsontimes