Shelved Seattle Police drones highlight transparency problems with surveillance equipment

As the results of a public records request recently revealed, Seattle Police Department never quite got around to sending back those drones we were all talking about back in early 2013.

Brief refresher: In early 2012, three days after then-mayoral-hopeful Bruce Harrell of Seattle City Council introduced a bill to regulate the use of drones by Seattle Police Department, then-mayor Mike McGinn one-upped his opponent by abruptly announcing an end to the drone program. McGinn also declared that the devices would be sent back to the vendor from which they were purchased.

This was a win for the public–we never asked our police to purchase flying surveillance cameras in the first place–and we celebrated it as such. But to those who were paying close enough attention, McGinn’s decree looked like political posturing.

Surveillance technology advances rapidly. The fact that SPD’s 2010-era drones, with their 15-minute battery life and inability to fly in the rain, are sitting on a shelf here in Seattle gathering dust doesn’t worry us.

We are more concerned about the continued lack of transparency in how surveillance equipment is acquired and deployed (and disabled, or not disabled), and the lack of meaningful oversight of the police department, and about the fact that our police continue to use U.S. Department Homeland Security money to purchase equipment the public doesn’t trust them to use in a constitutional manner.

Our Mayor and City Council need advice from technologists and privacy advocates to fend off the ever-encroaching surveillance state at the local level. Until we formalize a system for providing elected officials with the information they need to make good decisions, they will continue to be blind-sided by SPD’s use of their homeland security slush fund for purchases of equipment used to treat everyone as a potential suspect.

Other coverage:

The Seattle Police Dept Said It Would Get Rid of Its Drones. It Hasn’t.
by Shawn Musgrave
March 25, 2014

Seattle Police Secretly Keep Drones Despite Promise
by Mikael Thalen
March 26, 2014

Seattle Police Still Have Drones
by Ansel Hertz
March 26, 2014

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