A federal law-enforcement agency has installed surveillance cameras along 23rd Avenue, but declines to say if any local agency was involved in the decision.
A spokesperson for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) confirmed today that it had "placed video cameras in Seattle locations to support an ongoing federal criminal investigation. These cameras belong to our agency. They weren't requested by nor are they monitored by the Seattle Police Department."
That statement comes after several days of speculation about new cameras—one at 23rd and Jackson, another on 23rd between Spring and Union—that were spotted by Lee Colleton of the Seattle Privacy Coalition. Seattle City Light spokesperson Scott Thompson was careful to say that the agency didn't install the cameras but allowed them to be installed by a "local law-enforcement agency" that was "definitely not the Seattle Police Department." (Thompson wouldn't say whether the agency in question was the King County Sheriff's Department; a sheriff's department spokesperson said he didn't know anything about the camera.)
A phone number scrawled in black marker on the side of the box, however, is just a Google search away from someone named Todd E. Reeves, who—according to a LinkedIn.com profile that has been taken down in the past 24 hours—worked as a forensic photography specialist for government agencies in Miami-Dade County and, for the past 15 years, has been a "technical surveillance specialist" with the ATF.
When I called the number yesterday afternoon, I asked to speak with Reeves. "Who's this?" the voice on the other end of the line asked.
I told him I was a reporter with The Stranger in Seattle. "Sorry, can't talk to you right now, sir," the voice said and then hung up. Colleton said when he called the number a few days ago, the voice said that it "wasn't at liberty to discuss" the camera, why it was there, or who actually owns it.
"They did suggest it might have something to do with the high rates of crime and shootings in the neighborhood," Colleton said.
The ATF spokesperson wouldn't answer further questions about the cameras. A local resident in a wheelchair who preferred to be called "B" says he frequents the corner on 23rd and Jackson but only noticed the camera above that intersection in the past few months. "Somebody else hipped me to it," he says. Colleton says he saw the make of the camera with a "pocket telescope" (funny how the privacy folks are so good at snooping) and identified it as a V8-H41—which sells for nearly $2,000 online.
Some community leaders in the Central District—including the prominent Reverend Harriet Walden—have called for more law-enforcement intervention, including surveillance cameras, in neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence. Mayor Ed Murray and police chief Kathleen O'Toole have publicly stated interest in "starting the conversation" about surveillance cameras and crime prevention—but neither have indicated that cameras are already being used.
Every time the city has tried to quietly employ surveillance technology first and ask questions later, often backed by federal funding from the Department of Homeland Security (including drones, cameras, and a wireless "mesh network"), it has been met with resistance from the public.
The camera at 23rd and Jackson, Thompson said, is "hosted on our pole. It's not our equipment... We support law enforcement and will continue to allow that kind of placement in the future."
But, he stressed, Seattle City Light didn't put the cameras there, and the agency had a purely "internal process" about whether to allow the surveillance equipment on its poles. Jared Friend, a technology specialist with the ACLU, says the cameras bring up questions of jurisdiction and how much authority a city has to say no to the federal government. "All of this raises the question: 'Okay, if the ATF is doing this, what is their authority?'" Friend says.
The office of Bruce Harrell, chair of the city's public safety committee—which deals with law-enforcement and surveillance technology—says it was not informed about the cameras. "We're looking to write a letter to the ATF or introduce a resolution," says Harrell staffer Vinh Tang. "We would like any federal agency to notify city agencies before installing surveillance equipment." The Seattle surveillance ordinance requires city agencies to get permission from the city council to install surveillance equipment—but federal agencies aren't bound by that requirement.
The question is not whether gun violence is a major problem that needs to be addressed. The answer to that is an obvious yes. The question is whether Seattle can establish meaningful surveillance policies—don't suck up the identities of everyone at a protest with StingRays, for example—without federal agencies being able to summarily preempt them just by picking up the phone and calling Seattle City Light.
Brian Bennett, a spokesperson for the ATF, agreed to provide additional details: The cameras, he says, are not being actively monitored but are recording to a hard drive that could be accessed for evidence-gathering purposes related to “an ongoing investigation” involving the Puget Sound Regional Crime Gun Task Force, which also includes the SPD, Washington State Patrol, and the Washington State Department of Corrections. Bennett says the ATF has an agreement with Seattle City Light that allows them to install cameras—covert or overt—without notifying other city agencies.
He said he was not able to comment on what agreements other federal agencies have made with city departments about the quiet installation of surveillance equipment.