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Spokane County Sheriff’s Office will soon be able to watch schools’ live security footage

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 6, 2019

Spokane County Undersheriff Dave Ellis discusses the "real time crime center" on Aug. 1, 2019, which is currently used to monitor activity on the Public Safety Building Center, but will be used in emergency situations in county school districts. Currently, seven school districts have agreed to be part of the system, which crime analysts will use to coordinate law enforcement response to emergency events. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Undersheriff Dave Ellis discusses the "real time crime center" on Aug. 1, 2019, which is currently used to monitor activity on the Public Safety Building Center, but will be used in emergency situations in county school districts. Currently, seven school districts have agreed to be part of the system, which crime analysts will use to coordinate law enforcement response to emergency events. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office could have access to live camera feeds for 10 area school districts’ security systems for emergencies such as shootings as soon as this school year.

Under agreements between area school districts and Spokane County, law enforcement would tap into existing security camera systems in public areas on school campuses. Deputies, dispatchers and crime analysts would be able to view the footage and would use it to direct police or other emergency responders to the school.

Spokane Public Schools, the region’s largest school district, is not part of the agreement.

Dave Ellis, Spokane County undersheriff, said when members of law enforcement arrive to an emergency at a school, they often receive conflicting information. Cameras are expected to help deputies find the threat faster.

“Some of that information is good-intentioned, but wrong,” he said. “What we want to be able to do is say, he’s on the second floor. He’s in the northeast corner, that’s where your threat is.”

Under the agreement, an emergency could be any situation that poses “an imminent threat to the life, safety, health or property” of the school district.

Examples are active shooters, hostage situations, fires, terrorism, bomb threats, threatened or actual use of firearms or weapons, health-related emergencies, lockdowns and an after-hours burglary alarm. Law enforcement also has to notify the school district that it accessed its security cameras within 24 hours.

The Coeur d’Alene School District has already set up and tested a similar system with law enforcement and hopes to have an agreement with dispatchers by this school year.

Jay McNall, a lieutenant with the sheriff’s department who is coordinating with the school districts to set up the new system, said three more school districts are considering joining and the rest are working on integrating their camera systems with the county’s technology. County commissioners have already approved agreements with the Central Valley, Cheney, Deer Park, East Valley, Medical Lake, West Valley and Freeman school districts.

Ellis said the sheriff’s office also would work with area universities, private schools or businesses interested in linking their security footage with the county’s.

Marlene Feist, spokeswoman for the city of Spokane, said the Spokane Police Department does not have such a sharing agreement with the school district, but said the police chief plans to approach Spokane Public Schools once it hires a new director of safety.

Randy Russell, superintendent of Freeman School District, said the shooting on Freeman’s campus almost two years ago was dealt with so quickly that deputies accessing cameras may not have helped.

“We had a response within seconds and minutes and you’re just not going to get a quicker response,” he said. “However, anytime you can have that relationship and partnership where law enforcement and schools are working together and law enforcement has access to the technology, to the surveillance system to help assist schools to keep schools safer, that’s a good thing.”

Russell said students’ privacy will be protected because cameras aren’t installed in private areas like locker rooms and bathrooms. He said he also doesn’t anticipate any issues with law enforcement or other agencies accessing school footage during nonemergencies.

“I think the agencies, the staff in our area are so collaborative, so professional, that that will never be a problem,” he said.

Shankar Narayan, director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the Washington ACLU, said mass shootings are sometimes used by law enforcement and other agencies as a way to increase surveillance without accountability. He said this proposal is concerning, because the definition of what could be an emergency is extremely broad.

“A health-related emergency could be a student choking on a sandwich,” he said. “(And) property damage is included. What happens if a student breaks a chair or acts out in some way that teenagers often do? Suddenly that has gone from being a disciplinary issue resolved within the school to a law enforcement issue.”

Narayan argued that law enforcement being able to tune into what were once internal discipline issues could cause an increase in the “school to prison pipeline.” Students, especially minorities, could be referred to law enforcement when school discipline would have been better for their situation.

He said turning to the newest technology and methods instead of studying how to prevent violence at schools is a common but troubling trend for governments.

“Someone shows up with a shiny technology and says without any evidence that it’s going to help fix the problem and no one bothers to actually figure out if that’s true or not,” he said. “But that’s what the democratic process is supposed to be for, and I would encourage the public decision-makers who engage with this to actually figure out if the technology is going to do something before giving the sheriff’s office access.”

According to the agreement, in nonemergency situations law enforcement would have to subpoena video footage or work with the school resource officer. Law enforcement also agreed to treat information it views on footage as confidential and under control of the school district, which is required by law to follow the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Lt. McNall said it’s not designed to monitor students and staff. He said the goal is to get the right resources to an emergency at a school as quickly as possible.

“This is for the safety of the staff and the students,” he said. “This is not used to spy on people, this is not … big brother watching. This is strictly (for) emergency situations to get the resources and assets to save people’s lives.”

Neale Rasmussen, executive director of business services at East Valley School District, said the district surveyed parents before it made an agreement with the county. Of the 334 families who responded, 92% said they agreed, or strongly agreed, with allowing law enforcement to access footage.

Rasmussen said the survey was conducted before a public safety levy, which paid for increases in security.

He said the intention isn’t to allow law enforcement to access cameras whenever deputies want to, but only when someone calls 911 and there’s a life-threatening situation.

Travis Hanson, superintendent of Deer Park School District, said not giving law enforcement access to tools that would get them to potentially violent emergencies could be an oversight.

“Why would we not want them in a situation where we have some active shooter or violent threat taking place in our building and we have people that are coming to help and assist and keep kids safe?” he said. “To not have an agreement in place seems like a more egregious issue than giving them access in these very specific situations.”

Hanson said the Deer Park School District had already been working on security changes for the past year, and cameras were just one of several improvements. After the shooting at Freeman, he said schools across the region looked at what more they could do to secure their campuses and improve technology.

He said the school district has already taken privacy into account with its existing camera system by not placing cameras in classrooms, bathrooms and locker rooms and putting up signs where there are cameras to notify everyone that they are being monitored.

Hanson acknowledged that first responders, when they arrive, are usually “cleaning up” a situation and increased technology improvements and camera access isn’t the way to prevent violence and mass shootings. He said one local group has developed a behavioral health threat assessment, and others are working on connecting at-risk families, or people who have expressed depression or violent thoughts, to resources to address volatile situations.

“A lot of the technologies we have are about our reaction, our response to violent threats,” he said. “I just think it’s absolutely vital … that part of what we’re doing at schools every day is working exceptionally hard to prevent these things from happening.”

The online headline for this story was changed on August 6, 2019 to reflect that law enforcement can watch school’s footage live.

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