$5 million waterfront cameras haven't worked one day

SEATTLE -- A $5 million project by the Seattle Police Department and the city hasn't worked a single day since it started more than two years ago.

Newly-uncovered emails and revealing interviews conducted by the KOMO Problem Solvers provide a glimpse inside a program that may have to start all over from scratch.

"If we're not going to use them, we should get rid of them, sell them or dispose of them," said Jared Friend with the ACLU.

Approximately 30 surveillance cameras were installed in late 2012 and early 2013 along the waterfront area and Alki as part of a Homeland Security Grant and community groups lashed out almost immediately.

"Any time you have lots of cameras around, it creates the opportunity for dragnet surveillance," Friend said.

After the uproar, the city council set out to create an ordinance with specific rules on how to use surveillance technology.

So far, no ordinance.

The Problem Solvers uncovered previously-unreleased emails that reveal the real story.

There was talk of dumping the cams entirely but keeping the wireless network that went along with them.

But that "the department could potentially be required to repay the $4.9 million in funding awarded for the project" according to the grants coordinator with SPD.

Critics and even the city council said the system rolled out too quickly.

"The proper process wasn't in place to prevent that money from being spent without carefully considering the implications," Friend said.

So while the cameras gathered dust, Kathleen O'Toole was brought on the new chief of police and Mike Wagers, the new technology guru.

"You've got to be transparent. You've got to be engaged with the community," Wagers said.

Last June a captain in the intelligence unit wrote of the proposed privacy rules: "These are so ridiculously complicated and burdensome, and create a great likelihood that we would be found in violation..We clearly are better off not using any cameras, rather than having to try and operate under these. It's time to go back to the drawing board."

SPD transferred control of the wireless network to the city's IT department but the cameras remain in limbo.

"We can't fix how we got to this point. We're only trying to figure out how to move forward and use it to the best benefit in terms of public safety," Wagers said.

Friend remains skeptical and expects better for taxpayers and privacy.

"I think it's going to continue to sit there unused," Friend said.

For the last month, the Problem Solvers have been trying to get any sort of interview with the IT department about its plans. They didn't agree to our requests. The same for councilman Bruce Harrell who chairs the safety committee that approved the cameras in the first place. Calls were not returned.

Mayor Ed Murray issued a statement about the issue:

"The wireless mesh network was installed in 2013 as a resource to enhance our public safety infrastructure and first-responder communications in Seattle. The network will improve wireless data transmission needed by our first responders, especially during major events when cellular networks are overloaded. The network will not collect information from the public. Before this network is turned on, we want to help the public understand how the network works to improve public safety.
"In November, the City of Seattle started work on our comprehensive privacy initiative. We are developing a set of principles that will govern how the City approaches all privacy-impacting decisions. We will outline what information can be collected from those visiting our website, calling 9-1-1 and all the other ways we gather information to serve the public. Our customers and residents must understand and trust how the City uses their data."

The city is still investigating to see if terms of the grant are being violated but they are moving forward anyway.
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