Three new high-tech tools being considered by the Seattle Police Department look a lot like items on child’s Christmas wish list. Unmanned aerial vehicles are essentially high-end toy helicopters with a camera. Body cameras look like the small flip-cams sold at Costco and Best Buy. And the portable laptops used to operate gunshot detectors resemble bulky GameBoys.
The tools could help foster in more accurate, effective and faster policing and possibly better oversight of officers. By introducing military-grade tools to a city police force, the technology could also be a step toward greater surveillance of the public.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the city council’s Public Safety Committee, said the tools are a sign of the times.
“When you’re outside, walking down the street, there’s no less than a dozen cameras that at some point will have captured your image.”
Surveillance has infiltrated our daily lives. A private security camera in West Seattle helped police find Ian Stawicki, the man who killed five people across the city this spring.
“Even though we generally have a disdain for cameras, one cannot question their enormous use in crime detection,” Harrell said.
Many citizens remain wary of increased surveillance by police. They are skeptical about how new tools may be used by a police department in need of reform.
A 2011 report from the Department of Justice showed that the SPD has a pattern and practice of excessive force and has exhibited signs of biased policing.
Some have questioned the use of military-style surveillance tools in a civilian setting. In October, protestors took over a meeting at Garfield High School that SPD had organized to field questions about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones. These protestors shouted down the officers, calling drones “weapons.”
Some city leaders doubt technology will lead to better outcomes for citizens.
“Technology often creates the illusion of more effective policing,” said Councilmember Tim Burgess, a former police officer. “I’m leery of that. I don’t think layering on more tech for the sake of technology necessarily improves the effectiveness of the police, nor does it make our neighborhoods safer.”
What they are: Toy-sized helicopters with a digital cameras
How much do they cost?: $41,000. SPD and the King County Sheriff’s Office each have one through a federal grant
What are the chances? SPD and KCSO officers are testing them, but their implementation as a full policing tool is not set in stone
Of all the technology Seattle has explored, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are the most controversial, and perhaps with good reason.
The departments do not yet have policies for the use of drones, as they’re commonly called. But President Barack Obama signed legislation allowing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to explore their use for city police work.
SPD’s drone is a small, black, toy-sized helicopter with several blades. It’s called the Draganflyer X6 and can hover over the city for an hour at a time.
The FAA doesn’t allow police drones to do anything other than film. SPD officials insist the Draganflyer will never be armed. But some perceive it as militaristic nonetheless.
“It brings home the idea of war,” said Rev. Harriett Walden, executive director of Mothers for Police Accountability.
West Seattle resident Zithri Ahmed Saleem is calling for a No Drone Zone in Seattle, and is organizing community members to protest at regional meetings of the FAA.
Saleem said the mere fact that police used a drone to take aerial photos could scare defendants into taking a plea bargain.
“I don’t see how this bodes well for impoverished communities, and particularly people of color,” Saleem said.
Several Seattle City Council members agree. Councilmember Bruce Harrell said he’s approaching the issue of drones “very slowly and very cautiously,” adding, “I have not heard a compelling reason for their use to date.”
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said the department recognizes drones are a sensitive subject, but he insists that if the department uses drones, they will be limited to specific missions: crime scene photography, collision investigation, search and rescue, chemical spills and terrorist attacks. The drones will never leave the sight of an operator.
The American Civil Liberties Union wants stronger restrictions. Use of drones by SPD should require a warrant with probable cause, be confined to a few trained officers and be deployed by commanding officers only, said ACLU Deputy Director Jennifer Shaw.
Rather than rely on SPD policy, use of drones by police must be governed by an ordinance from the Seattle City Council, she said.
But requiring warrants won’t do much to inhibit SPD’s use of drones, Whitcomb said.
“If we’re using it with a search warrant signed by a judge, [the drones] would see a lot of action,” Whitcomb said. “The work we do is naturally intrusive.”
What they are: Small, pager-sized digital cameras mounted on the chest of police officers, they can record a few hours of video
How much do they cost?: Up to $900 per camera
What are the chances? Likely, after the Washington State Legislature revises audio recording policies to allow body cameras
Police accountability advocates have long called for body cameras on police officers, most often citing the August 2010 shooting death of John T. Williams.
If Officer Ian Birk was wearing a body camera, we’d be able to see what happened, said Walden of Mothers for Police Accountability. Birk might not have fired the shot at all, she said.
“I think he would have behaved differently,” Walden said, noting that Birk shot Williams four seconds after issuing a warning, according to the in-car camera that was pointed in the opposite direction.
Body cameras are already in use. VieVue, a Seattle company, distributes the cameras to 23 different law enforcement agencies around the country. Bainbridge Island and Lake Forest Park’s police departments use the devices, and the Spokane Police Department is looking into them.
When citizens were aware of body cameras it made them less aggressive and officers feel safer, according to a 2004 study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Body cameras also exonerated police officers accused of wrongdoing 93 percent of the time.
While SPD is not getting funding for body cameras in this budget cycle, Pickus said the department will likely start testing the technology, although he could not say exactly when.
City councilmembers and police watchdogs have thrown their support behind body cameras, but the ACLU of Washington is a holdout.
The ACLU’s Shaw said the footage is of questionable use. She compared the footage body cams produce to the 1999 horror movie The Blair Witch Project. As the officer with the body cam is often running and breathing hard, the footage can be shaky and incomprehensible.
Because a body camera is invariably facing away from the police officer wearing it, it won’t necessarily provide concrete evidence of police misconduct, she said.
SPD’s Whitcomb said while the department is interested in body cams, they would produce uneventful footage that would do little to alter the public perception of police.
What they are: An array of 52 cameras and audio recorders placed around Seattle to triangulate the exact location of a gunshot
How much do they cost?: $800,000
What are the chances? Possible, but not in 2013
A gunshot locator system could help police officers find and investigate shooting incidents faster, said Aaron Pickus, spokesperson for Mayor Mike McGinn.
The small, pole-mounted cameras and audio recorders are running 24 hours a day but only recording once they pick up the sound of a gunshot.
By triangulating the location of a gunshot, police officers can get onto the scene faster to find witnesses, collect gunshot casings and assist victims of gun violence. Locators could also give the police more data on how frequently guns are discharged in Seattle.
Walden, of Mothers for Police Accountability, said the quick response could make people think twice before using a weapon.
But the research does not indicate that the locators help public safety, said Councilmember Burgess. According to a St. Louis study from the journal Policing, gunshot detectors do not increase the number of reported gun crimes and can lead to a drop in citizen reports of gunfire.
“If we could show that it would reduce gun violence and increase the apprehension of gun offenders, then I would be supportive, but there’s no data that it does either of those,” Burgess said.
The mayor wanted $800,000 to start the program and $200,000 each year after to maintain it, but the city council removed it from the budget.
Instead, that funding will pay for more police officers.
Councilmember Harrell said he supports the use of the technology but wants to do more research to find cheaper or more effective devices.