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Surveillance cameras approved despite concerns from public

  • Written by Briana Gerdeman Contributing Writer

Surveillance cameras will soon be used in Woodinville in the hopes of catching repeat offenders to reduce the crime rate, despite residents’ concerns about privacy.
 

The City Council approved the program with a 5-1 vote at its May 21 meeting, with only Mayor Bernie Talmas voting against it. Councilmember Paulette Bauman was absent.
 

Police Chief Sydney Jackson said the cameras would be used only in public places, likely at major intersections or portals to the city, and signs will be put up notifying the public of the cameras. The recordings would be used to investigate and prosecute specific crimes after they’ve been reported.
 

“Criminals don’t just commit one crime,” Jackson said. “If we’re able to use video technology to identify a suspect, that’s one less crime ... They’re not going to be in the city committing another crime.”
 

She cited the example of a local restaurant that caught a burglar with its private surveillance camera. The suspect was charged with crimes — which all involved cutting alarm wires and drilling into safes — in several cities, as well as arson. He’s now serving a 10-year prison sentence.
 

The video recorded by Woodinville’s cameras would not be used for general surveillance of the public, issuing traffic citations, tracking civil violations, identifying individuals through face-recognition technology, or proactive (constant) monitoring. License plate readers might be used to identify vehicles associated with a crime.
 

“We are not going to be proactively monitoring video,” Jackson said. “If we’re looking at video, it’s because we’re actively involved in an investigation and looking for evidence.”
 

The number of cameras, their locations, when they will be installed, and the company that will provide the cameras haven’t been decided yet, she said.
 

The City Council and the chamber of commerce used three surveys to gauge public opinion about the security cameras — one at a chamber of commerce meeting and two online. Out of a total of 359 responses to the survey, 43 percent (155 respondents) supported the cameras and 57 percent (204 residents) opposed them. (Jackson noted there’s no way to tell if the online responses came from people who live in Woodinville, although the survey could only be taken once from a certain device.)
 

“It is very disappointing that the city of Woodinville did not listen to their citizens,” said Susan Milke, who’s lived in Woodinville for more than 20 years. “Is there something else going on that we don’t know about?”
 

Although she frequently shops in Woodinville, she plans to take her business to neighboring cities instead to protest the cameras. She also thinks city officials need to clarify details about the security cameras before the public can form an opinion.
 

“We need to know when they’re going up, where they’re going up, who’s going to be monitoring them, etc.,” she said. “They haven’t given us enough information to approve or disapprove.”
 

Video from the surveillance cameras will only be stored for 30 days. However, anyone can obtain the video through an open records request.
 

The budget for the cameras is $55,000 — dramatically less than the $180,000 to $185,000 yearly cost of a deputy police officer. But Jackson said there’s no data to prove security cameras deter crime.
 

According to a 2011 study by the Urban Institute, surveillance cameras are most effective when they are constantly monitored — which Woodinville doesn’t plan to do.
 

Baltimore, where the cameras were monitored live, reported a drop in crime, according to the study. In Chicago, one neighborhood saw a reduction in crime rates after cameras were installed, but in another neighborhood, where residents believed police weren’t monitoring cameras closely, the crime rate stayed the same. In Washington, D.C., where there were strict rules for monitoring the cameras, the crime rate didn’t change.
Although it’s “not a clear-cut issue,” Councilmember Susan Boundy-Sanders voted to approve the surveillance cameras because she felt the anecdotal evidence of residents who wanted cameras outweighed the “philosophical concerns” of those opposed to the cameras.
 

“I think the fear about Big Brother is certainly sincere, but I think the concern is hypothetical,” she said. “The burglaries, the bank robberies, the murders that are apparently associated with burglaries, are real.”
Many people don’t realize the camera surveillance program was driven by requests from citizens living in areas of Woodinville with high crime rates, Boundy-Sanders said. The privacy concerns, on the other hand, have come from parts of town with low crime.
 

She pointed out that the cameras wouldn’t necessarily be used in downtown; instead, they might be used in the industrial district — which has a problem with metal theft — or in specific neighborhoods with high crime.
Councilmember Scott Hageman told about a personal experience — his car window was smashed and his briefcase stolen outside of Target — that made him wish surveillance cameras were monitoring crime. He wants to see Woodinville use the cameras on a trial basis.
 

“Being on the wrong end of a criminal act is something that I don’t want to subject our citizens to,” he said. “If we can do this in a smart way, in a limited way, and in a way that is not intrusive, and with signage, then I would like to see this go forward.”
 

Dotty Heberling, owner of Northshore Sports Complex, installed her own security camera after her cash register was broken into three times in a month. Three days after installing the camera, she saw the suspect stealing again and, with the help of police, caught him.
 

Still, she doesn’t support the city putting up surveillance cameras.
 

“In my situation, it wouldn’t have helped. I think individuals need to have their own cameras,” she said. “To me, it seems kind of strange that the city would put up cameras when there are so many more important issues.”
Mayor Talmas said he was also the victim of a burglary recently, but “would not give up my privacy rights for the purpose of catching whoever did it ... On behalf of the public, I don’t want to give up or compromise the public’s privacy rights for any benefit we might get out of this. I think the benefits — the potential benefits — are too tenuous to give up our right to privacy.”
 

The demonstration of the security cameras, in which a camera outside of City Hall gave a clear enough picture to identify girls playing soccer on the nearby sports fields, made him uncomfortable, he said.
“Another more practical consideration for us is that we’re a small city; we run a big litigation risk,” he said. “... I’d hate to have Woodinville be a target of the ACLU or any other organization and have us in court for years over this.”
 

In fact, the ACLU contacted Woodinville to express its concern when the City Council first started discussing surveillance cameras.
 

Jamela Debelak, technology and liberty director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state, said Woodinville has “gone through the process the right way” by seeking public input and hopes the city will include policies to protect privacy, such as regulations for who will have access to the recordings.
 

But the possibility of “mission creep” makes her cautious. “We don’t frequently know how government is using the data they collect ...We don’t really know if they’re being used for any other purpose.”
 

Although Woodinville has the opportunity to create regulations that will balance crime prevention with privacy, Talmas is concerned that policies could change under future leaders.
 

“Whenever any group or organization in power makes these kinds of decisions, they’re always made with the best of intentions, but as someone pointed out, people on the boards and commissions and departments change, and it’s difficult to control something like this once it’s out there.”

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