While city debates, community expands own surveillance system

SEATTLE -- While the city is embroiled in a debate about public safety versus personal privacy when it comes to surveillance cameras, one Seattle neighborhood has taken it upon itself to install a community-wide, privately owned security system.

In 2011, property and business owners in the International District and Chinatown came together to install nine surveillance cameras around the neighborhood. This summer, the community raised more than $30,000 to add three more cameras to the system.

"This is something everyone agrees on," said Don Blakeney, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area. "We want this place to be safe."

Blakeney said he saw the diverse interests of the neighborhood, people who have never come to the table on any issue, work together to get the surveillance system off the ground after a rash of tagging two years ago.

In that incident, someone tagged 32 neighborhood buildings in less than an hour, Blakeney said. When businesses provided surveillance footage to the Seattle Police Department, he said it was deemed unusable because some of the cameras' time stamps were incorrect.

Blakeney said the community knew it needed better cameras and resources, and that's why business and property owners joined forces to create a single coordinated surveillance system.

It's a partnership that the Seattle Police Department believes is both a deterrent to crime and a tool to solve it.

The Seattle Police Department's Sean Whitcomb said people who are in the International District to commit a crime now know they are being watched and the footage can provide valuable evidence for police.

Whitcomb also said that a community could come together to orchestrate a project of this magnitude is evidence of a healthy neighborhood that is not going to tolerate crime.

"You've got a community that is so organized, people communicate with each other, everyone is invested in a safer neighborhood," he said.

Blakeney said the surveillance system has been effective, capturing break-ins on camera and leading to a number of arrests.

And, Whitcomb said he has heard neighbors are very pleased with the system.

"It seems to me that surveillance cameras put in by merchants, businesses, homeowners are generally, from what I've heard, viewed more favorably than police-managed cameras," he said.

Blakeney said people tend to be more skeptical of systems in which the police own all the data and in which that data could conceivably be made available to the public.

To address possibly privacy concerns for the International District's community-owned system, Blakeney said cameras were installed to only record public sidewalks outside buildings and to not look above the ground floor.

"We don't care whats going on in people's apartments," Blakeney said.

Blakeney also said no one is sitting around watching the cameras; instead, footage is pulled up as necessary for combating crime.

The three new cameras, which are being made possible through fundraising spearheaded by the neighborhood's Seniors in Action Foundation, will be installed on Sixth Avenue South at South King Street, South Weller Street and South Lane Street. The money raised will also be used to update and improve the current system.

The new cameras will likely not be operational for more than a year because the neighborhood has to work with the city's Landmarks Review Board as many of the International District's buildings are historically protected.

For all their usefulness, the cameras are just a small part of the larger Chinatown-International District's economic revitalization strategy, which also includes everything from marketing, to bilingual streets signs to activated alleyways.

"After a couple more cameras, we'll move on to the next thing," Blakeney said.