Seattle Courant

Mayor Nickels Installs Video Cameras at Cal Anderson Park

By Keith Vance
May 19, 2008 02:05PM

Last year, Nickels asked the City Council for $850,000 to improve security in four city parks. Marty McOmber, senior communications and policy advisor in the mayor's office, said that some of that money would be used to install additional lighting and hire park rangers. The bulk of that money, $500,000, would be spent installing 24-hour surveillance cameras at Cal Anderson Park, Hing Hay Park in the Chinatown International District, Occidental Square Park and the Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market.

When council members reviewed the budget request, they were concerned about how the video cameras would be used.

"At the time, there wasn't enough information," said Brian Hawksford of councilmember Tom Rasmussen's office.

To halt the mayor's plan, the council put a budget restriction on that money.

Hawksford said that putting up video cameras in city parks isn't necessarily a bad idea as long as there are good protocols in place to control access to the live and recorded video, how long the videos are kept and safeguards to protect the privacy of innocent people. In general, he said, the idea is fine.

To get around the budget restriction, Nickels found $150,000 in the Parks Department budget to install the cameras at Cal Anderson Park.

When asked if this is something the mayor normally does, the Parks Department's Dewey Potter said "It's not terribly normal."

Chelsea Hanson of Shoreline was at Cal Anderson Park and said: "I think it's sneaky, going around the council."

McOmber said the mayor needed to take action at Cal Anderson Park.

"We were seeing a disturbing increase in assaults, drug use and vandalism," he said.

According to Potter, in 2006 there were 32 work orders to remove graffiti in the park. In 2007, there were 66. Potter said there were seven strong-arm robberies and eight aggravated assaults in the park last year.

But as far as the Seattle Police Department is concerned, last year marked the lowest crime rate since 1968.

"In comparison to similar sized cities, crime appeared to go down," said police media relations officer Mark Jamieson. He would not comment on what McOmber said regarding an increase in crime at Cal Anderson Park.

"It was warranted and well within our rights and abilities to install cameras," said McOmber, adding that "the cameras up there will have a deterring affect."

Not everyone is convinced.

"It's not solving the crime problem in any sense," said Doug Honig, communications director for the Washington state American Civil Liberties Union. He said if anything video cameras move crime rather than reduce it.

"The problem with video cameras is that they record the innocent activities of citizens," Honig said. "When people are out in public, they should have a reasonable expectation of privacy."

McOmber said the issue is a tempest in a tea pot.

"Having security cameras is nothing new," he said, noting that there are security cameras at community centers and other public places right now, and that the cameras in Cal Anderson Park area reasonable approach.

Megan Williams is a nanny who visits Cal Anderson Park regularly.

"I always feel totally safe," she said.

As far as the cameras are concerned, Williams said: "It's just creepy. I don't want to be monitored."

Cat Cunanan lives on Capitol Hill and also works as a nanny. She said that she would rather see the money spent on social programs.

"This is very big brother," she said.

But some park users think the cameras are a good idea.

"You know, being a father, coming here with kids, I don't mind so much," said Scot Sidener. If the cameras help get rid of the broken bottles and syringes in the fountain, he said he's fine with the them.

Whether the cameras are a good idea or a bad one, they appear to be here to stay.

"If the council is determined to have cameras, there needs to be safeguards. Clear guidelines to limit access to who gets to see the video," Honig said.

Potter added that the video is automatically deleted (actually it's recorded over) every 30 days. She said that while the cameras are recording live, however, no one is supposed to view the monitors unless there is a 911 call.

One of the cameras at Cal Anderson Park is located near the restrooms and two more are further west toward the basketball court. The cameras on the gatehouse near the fountain, Potter said, are old, non-working ones that belong to Seattle Public Utilities.

The City Council is scheduled to consider this matter on Thursday, May 1.