West Seattle

Controversial cameras gather dust after city spends $5 million

Controversial cameras gather dust after city spends $5 million »Play Video

SEATTLE - Twenty-eight cameras dot Seattle's waterways, from Alki, to Alaskan Way to Ballard.

It is a $5 million system with money that has already been spent by the Seattle city council and police department.

And the cameras may never be turned on.

Jamela Debelak with the ACLU says the port security camera system became front page news in January when the cameras were discovered. She says the difficult questions of personal security haven't gone away. "We'd like them to not be turned on until we have really good privacy protections in place," she said.

As the Problem Solvers uncovered earlier this year, the system was approved in committee during an 11 minute discussion with no questions about privacy and data protection.

Councilmember Mike O'Brien was one of the unanimous votes on the full council to approve the project, but says now, "It's a little bit of a brave new world we're living in here."

The camera system is a federal grant for homeland security. The 28 cameras and wireless network aim to stop terrorism. But many residents and privacy advocates are worried about how the videos were stored, access and what could be seen. There were no policies or rules in place at first.

"All of this, we normally would like to see this happen before anything is purchased," Debelek said.

The $5 million grant was a "use it or lose it" grant, meaning the cameras had to be installed by the end of March or else the grant money would be forfeited.

"When federal money comes in, the financing drives our policy decisions," O'Brien said.

Taxpayers may get nothing in the end though.

The entire system may be shut down without taking a single frame of video. The council passed an ordinance after the uproar to retroactively require SPD to fully explain the program. SPD has worked on it for months and a draft still isn't ready.

"I am convinced that we'll be able to put together something that takes everyone's voice into account," said Sean Whitcomb with SPD.

Due to committee scheduling, the earliest a yes or no vote to turn the cameras on would be December, nearly a full year since the cameras started going up.

Mayor Mike McGinn says it isn't a waste at all, laughing off the delays.

"You know, we always like to get things done as efficiently as possible, but you also want to do it right the first time," McGinn says.

Both the Mayor and SPD said there is no deadline nor timeline for a release of the draft rules for the camera program.