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Originally published April 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 22, 2008 at 6:30 AM

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Surveillance cameras installed in Seattle's Cal Anderson Park

Big Brother is already watching you in one Seattle park, and Mayor Greg Nickels wants to install surveillance cameras in three others to...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Big Brother is already watching you in one Seattle park, and Mayor Greg Nickels wants to install surveillance cameras in three others to curb graffiti, drug dealing and other crimes.

Without public notice, Nickels had three surveillance cameras installed and turned on in Capitol Hill's Cal Anderson Park on Feb. 20.

City Council members and the American Civil Liberties Union aren't happy about that. Council members wanted to know who could watch the video, how long it would be kept, and what safeguards would protect the privacy of innocent citizens.

The council's Parks and Seattle Center Committee is scheduled to discuss those safeguards at a meeting today.

The council had put a budget restriction last year on park surveillance cameras until it learned more about the mayor's plan, but Nickels found a different pot of money for the Cal Anderson cameras.

The ACLU opposes the mayor's initiative, saying people have the right to be in public places without fear of the government peering over their shoulder.

"It's just kind of creepy," said Jennifer Shaw, legislative director of the ACLU of Washington. "The problem is you'll catch innocent behavior more than crime, and I don't want someone watching me at all times."

Nickels wants cameras in three other parks near downtown: Hing Hay Park in the Chinatown International District, Occidental Square Park in Pioneer Square, and Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market.

He believes cameras will deter crime and help police investigate crimes reported in the parks. He wants the council to approve spending $850,000 for a one-year test of the cameras. They went up in Cal Anderson Park to curtail drug dealing, vandalism and illicit sex, said a Nickels spokesman. "This is about making sure our center-city parks are safe, welcoming places for everybody," said Marty McOmber.

The city has not yet claimed any arrests or prosecutions as a result of images caught by the cameras.

This summer the city will also employ six park rangers, at a cost of $462,000, to rove downtown parks and alert police to any illegal activity.

McOmber said the video-surveillance program could spread to other parks if successful, but it wasn't envisioned for them all.

The cameras are owned and operated by the city. They are monitored by police in the city's West Precinct Communication Center. From there, the cameras can be made to tilt, zoom and pan around the park. They operate 24 hours a day, recording video without anyone monitoring images in real time. But when warranted, by a 911 call or a report of criminal activity, police can watch the cameras in real time.

City officials say the images would be stored for two weeks then automatically erased unless they were needed as evidence in an investigation.

Tom Rasmussen, who chairs the council's Parks and Seattle Center Committee, got a demonstration Monday on how the cameras work. "The ability to move the camera is just amazing. They can zoom in on people quite effectively. It's an Orwellian experience when you're observing people from three or four miles away," he said.

Rasmussen said most council members would probably support surveillance cameras with proper safeguarding of the video, which would be a public record and subject to disclosure requests under state law. Councilmember Nick Licata wants the police to produce a warrant before viewing video.

The real sticking point, Rasmussen said, is the way Nickels charged ahead in Cal Anderson Park before the council lifted its spending clamp on surveillance cameras. He called it "totally inconsistent" with the council's will.

McOmber said Nickels was prompted by a spike in graffiti at the park and noted that Nickels financed the Capitol Hill cameras by drawing from a different fund than the one the council had restricted.

Rasmussen said the mayor "skirted" the council's budget restriction through a technicality. He said it "harms the trust" and the sometimes rocky relationship between Nickels and the council.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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