A proposed law limiting the use of surveillance technology in the city of Spokane has been diminished to the point of being ineffective, according to local and state civil rights groups.
It’s also stoked some opposition from the Downtown Spokane Partnership, which is planning a downtown camera network to provide the Spokane Police Department with real-time surveillance and to assist in investigative work.
But the law’s sponsor, City Council President Ben Stuckart, said he will put forward the original ordinance, calling it the beginning of “a longer conversation.” He said it was never intended to cover all surveillance technology, just new technology not yet used by the city or police department, such as drones.
The ordinance, which will require City Council approval before any city department purchases certain surveillance equipment, was originally intended to be considered by the City Council last month, but after criticism that the law didn’t go far enough, Stuckart pulled the bill to make changes.
New language was written into the bill exempting “surveillance equipment, video or other recording devices that are used to conduct or further a criminal investigation” and requiring “city contractors and agents” to follow the same protocol as city departments.
Ultimately, Stuckart struck all new language and stuck with the bill’s original language.
“I tried to work on it,” he said. “But we’re back to square one.”
Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said he worried the protocols in Stuckart’s bill would be restrictive to the point where “everyone knows where every camera is.”
The camera network is in the conceptual phase, Richard said, but it’s intended to give a sense of safety and security by helping police “expand their eyes throughout downtown.”
But Jamela Debelak, the technology and liberty director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said the downtown business group’s plan for a camera network is “essentially a police network, in our opinion.”
Debelak, who wrote a letter last month arguing Stuckart’s ordinance didn’t go far enough, said such a camera network should be approved by the City Council.
“They’re concerned about safety and security downtown, which we understand,” Debelak said of the business group. “We respect each other’s positions, but we’re not going to find any common ground.”
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of Spokane’s Center for Justice, said he spoke with police Chief Frank Straub and was convinced that “he’s committed to transparency.”
And though he supports the ordinance as it is, he said it should be strengthened over the next year.
“The public doesn’t need to know if there’s surveillance at a certain drug house. Or if they’re targeting a bad guy in a specific situation,” he said. “The public does need to know if the technology is being used for an appropriate purpose, and how the data is being retained.”
Stuckart acknowledged the ordinance was a “first step,” and said he would “be watching this pretty closely over the next year.
“Maybe next summer we can bring some changes if I can get support,” he said. “But right now, we have zero protections and this is a start.”