On Tuesday the Seattle Police Department (SPD) plans to hold a public hearing on three proposed surveillance technologies it wants to launch as part of a pilot project, including the controversial Acoustic Gunshot Location System (AGLS) proposal, CCTV cameras, and new software for SPD’s Real Time Crime Center. The Mayor’s Office has argued these technologies can help police respond to serious crimes and support crime-solving efforts during SPD’s stated staffing shortage. However, privacy and community activists say these technologies waste police resources and public funds on unproven promises of crime reduction, all while increasing the chances of police violating people’s civil liberties.

The three technologies supposedly work together to enhance public safety. At a public hearing earlier this month, the Mayor’s director of public safety, Kerry Keefe, said that “studies show” that AGLS, commonly referred to by the brand name ShotSpotter, showed promise in preventing crime and assisting criminal investigations “when it is coupled with the CCTV, and other crime-reduction measures, such as environmental improvements, increased patrol, and public support.” The Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) takes the information collected from ShotSpotter and CCTV and overlays them onto a map of the area where the system detected a gunshot or where a serious crime occurred. The City Council approved $1.5 million for the whole project during last year’s budget negotiations.

The City proposes putting ShotSpotter and the CCTV technologies on Aurora Avenue, as well as in the Chinatown-International District, Belltown, and the downtown area. SPD already targets these areas for emphasis patrols, and the Mayor’s office has started on "environmental improvements” for a portion of these places with his Metropolitan Improvement District. 

However, based on the response at a February 12 public hearing for the surveillance technologies, Mayor Bruce Harrell may not have the “public support” supposedly needed to make AGLS more effective. All 17 people who showed up to provide public comment opposed the added surveillance. 

Commenters raised concerns that the Mayor and SPD had rushed through the Surveillance Impact Report process, giving the public less than 30 days to provide public comment. The shortened period did not give enough time for the City to engage with the public and community on whether they wanted the technology put in their neighborhoods, multiple commenters said. UW lecturer and biochemistry research scientist Rose King said she felt the City needed to slow down the whole process and reach out to the communities they planned to target.

The commenters on the whole expressed a lack of trust in SPD and said they feared giving officers such an expanded ability to monitor the public, in particular through CCTV. Not only would SPD set up its own cameras, the RTCC software update allows SPD to more easily access private surveillance cameras, with the permission of participating owners of those surveillance cameras. SPD said it had no plans to live-monitor the footage and planned to only review it after a reported crime or during an active response to a crime; however, King pointed out that regardless of the SPD’s intentions, it still had the ability to constantly survey neighborhoods. 

Other commenters listed off examples of when individual SPD officers abused their ability to access law enforcement databases, or harassed people they met on the job. Multiple commenters voiced concerns about the ability of other states and federal agencies to circumvent Seattle’s shield laws and access this surveillance footage to target people seeking abortion care, transgender individuals, and undocumented people. Seattle Solidarity Budget has mounted a campaign opposing these technologies and proposing other intervention strategies to combat community violence.

The whole proposal projects big Minority Report vibes, especially the promises regarding the RTCC. The RTCC software update takes multiple streams of information and puts them into a single pane that an RTCC staff member can then relay to officers in the field. That single pane also contains information from other SPD databases and surveillance technologies, such as Automatic License Plate Readers, another surveillance technology SPD is currently seeking to expand. 

SPD acknowledged in its Surveillance Impact Report that real time crime centers have little evidence to support their effectiveness. They point to one study that shows such centers have an association with increased case clearance rates. Seattle’s existing RTCC opened in 2015, but SPD’s case clearance rates for both violent and property crime stayed relatively flat from 2014 to 2019, according to the FBI National Incident Based Reporting System. SPD did not immediately respond to a request for information about the success of its program. 

The new RTCC software mostly helps with the integration of SPD’s gunshot detection system, the AGLS, which goes by the brand name ShotSpotter. The manufacturer claims the system can use microphones and sensors to detect gunshots, trace the location of the shots, and report that information to police. At the first public hearing, SPD Captain James Britt, who oversees technology integration for the department, said that an AGLS would make police more efficient and effective at responding to reports of shots fired. Right now, police must rely on 911 calls to know a shooting took place, and then determine its location, Britt said. With AGLS, police could narrow down where to go when responding to gunshots in the city.

However, AGLS has had notoriously negative results in many cities, including Chicago, where the MacArthur Justice Center filed a lawsuit against the City claiming the system led to unfounded charges against Black and Hispanic defendants. The justice center pointed out that Chicago placed ShotSpotter devices in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities. At the public hearing earlier this month, one public commenter mentioned that SPD proposed placing its AGLS devices in Seattle neighborhoods with a disproportionately high number of people of color relative to other places. All the neighborhoods also have a smaller proportion of white people compared to citywide numbers.

The Stranger thoroughly reviewed the arguments surrounding this technology in 2022, when Mayor Bruce Harrell last tried to push the City to buy the technology. Beyond the potential for these surveillance systems to lead to over-policing in BIPOC neighborhoods, many cities have found they simply don't work and actually increase police response times while doing nothing to reduce violent crime. 

Harrell’s administration has argued that combining CCTV with AGLS improves the effectiveness, but a partially randomized experiment on the effectiveness of AGLS and CCTV showed no significant increase in the number of confirmed shootings. Plus, Chicago also released AGLS alongside CCTV, and the city still canceled their contract with ShotSpotter’s manufacturer, SoundThinking Inc., earlier this month.

At the last public hearing, SPD promised to answer any questions raised at the next public hearing, which is scheduled for 6 pm Tuesday, February 27 at the Bitter Lake Community Center, 13035 Linden Avenue North. The hearing also can be accessed virtually. 

People who can’t make the public hearing can submit comments on one or more of the technologies through the Seattle Information Technology Department’s surveillance technology review page. SPD compiles the comments and the original SIR, and gives it all to the Community Surveillance Working Group, which then creates a privacy and civil liberties impact assessment. The whole report, plus the Chief Technology Officer’s response to any comments from the working group, then goes to the City Council, who must hold a full council vote to approve any new surveillance technology.