The state’s top civil liberties watchdog group is arguing that a proposed Spokane law doesn’t go far enough in requiring City Council approval before the city purchases surveillance equipment such as unmanned drones.
In a letter to City Council members, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington said Thursday it supported the “overall intention” of the ordinance written by Council President Ben Stuckart, but that it “excluded from its scope some key pieces of surveillance equipment.”
As written, the law specifically excludes cameras or equipment carried or worn by police officers from the approval process, as well as cameras installed on patrol cars or other city vehicles, in rights of way and inside or around public facilities.
“They should go through the approval process, too,” said Jamela Debelak, the technology and liberty director at the ACLU. “It actually excludes surveillance equipment that law enforcement normally uses. And there’s a lot of surveillance equipment that cops use.”
Debelak said equipment such as license plate readers and red-light cameras have the ability to “capture our everyday movement and monitor what we are doing.”
In the letter, the ACLU recommended that the ordinance be broadened to include situations where the city “outsources its surveillance needs to a third party.” The group also said the council should report annually to the public the number of times it was asked to approve surveillance equipment by city agencies.
Stuckart said he built the ordinance after talking to fellow council members, community members and people from the police department and mayor’s office. And he’s not changing it.
“After two months of outreach, the last minute is not the right time to start making changes,” he said. “Politics is about building coalitions and compromise. This is a good bill. … It isn’t perfect.”
The council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance Aug. 5.
Stuckart said he excluded body cameras worn by police officers because “police accountability is one of the most important things on everybody’s agenda. … I don’t want to do anything that puts police accountability in jeopardy.”
As for other equipment, such as license plate readers affixed to the top of patrol cars, Stuckart said he didn’t want the ordinance to apply to technology already in use.
Stuckart said he was disappointed that the ACLU has called for changes in the ordinance.
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of Spokane’s Center for Justice, said he “applauded” Stuckart for introducing legislation to halt the “wholesale surveillance” by government, but agreed with the ACLU that it didn’t go far enough.
“If we’re going to be concerned about (the use of surveillance equipment), we should be concerned about it in all circumstances,” he said. “We have constitutional rights not to have our privacy violated by the government. … Once you are surveilled, you don’t know how that information is going to be used. Who knows what sort of abuses might occur?”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.