The city's aerial drones were an increasingly thorny issue for Mayor Mike McGinn, who is seeking reelection this year. Under the mayor's watch, the Seattle Police Department had obtained the two unmanned helicopters without the city council's authorization. And although the surveillance drones would ostensibly increase public safety, the police never proved they were particularly useful, while concerns about the city spying on its own citizens further frayed public relations with an embattled police department.
So Mayor McGinn was smart to ground the drones last Thursday. As The Stranger first reported, McGinn agreed to send the two tricycle-sized helicopters with mounted cameras, which were originally purchased for $41,000 each through a federal grant, back to the vendor. "Today I spoke with Seattle police chief John Diaz, and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community-building work that is the department's priority," McGinn said in a statement.
One of the drone program's loudest critics, the ACLU of Washington, was quick to "applaud the mayor's action."
"I think this a classic example of the government getting out ahead of people, doing something because of federal funding without having public involvement and now recognizing that it has to pull back," says ACLU spokesman Doug Honig.
The new policy came largely in response to an angry hearing the day before, held by Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, who was considering legislation to restrict the use of the drones, and is also running for mayor. But Harrell, who chairs the city's public safety committee, shouldn't be afraid to keep pushing a bill that will restrict or ban drone use in Seattle. If neither McGinn nor Harrell wins, the next mayor could implement a drone program, and it makes sense to put restrictions on the books.
Even still, Harrell and McGinn should go further.
As the ACLU's Honig points out, another fight remains: Nine new surveillance cameras began showing up on Alki late last month. As West Seattle Blog first reported, these are the first of 30 cameras to be used in a new surveillance program that will stretch to the freeway. Honig says this is "another example of a surveillance program driven by federal funding and accepted by city leaders without discussion or input."
Pressed for comment, the mayor acknowledged that this too would need more consideration. "The system will not be operated until a thorough public vetting of the system has been completed and the public has provided input," McGinn said.
Unless the city can prove that these cameras actually make Seattle safer, yanking them from our streets wouldn't be just good policy, it will be good politics. And McGinn and Harrell would have another hot potato off their hands during campaign season.