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Security cameras installed at Cal Anderson Park

06:02 PM PDT on Tuesday, April 22, 2008

By CHARLOTTE STARCK / KING 5 News

Video: Surveillance cameras installed at Seattle's Cal Anderson Park
Larger screen

SEATTLE - From City Hall to city parks, there's a battle brewing over new 24-hour surveillance cameras installed in Seattle public parks.  The controversy pits the mayor's office against City Council and crime fighters against the ACLU.

City parks are the focus of a crime fighting effort by Mayor Greg Nickels, who recently moved around City Council's hold to install the city's first surveillance cameras in public parks, with three at Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hil.

The cameras are aimed at cracking down on crimes such as drug dealing, vandalism and illicit sex - the kind of activity in a dark park that is sometimes difficult for law enforcement to catch.

Seattle police report that in 2007 alone, they ejected 140 people from Cal Anderson Park for a variety of illegal activities ranging from armed robberies to aggravated assaults. Numbers showed crime activity is so high, the mayor's spokesman said a quick move was necessary.

But Nickels' action to put up the cameras without public notice is coming under fire.  

Councilman Tom Rasmussen doesn't think it was necessary to install cameras before discussing operational procedures.  Now the issue has drawn a wedge between the mayor and City Council. 

"It undermines trust," said Rasmussen. 

Meanwhile, at City Hall Tuesday morning, Rasmussen's council committee on parks heard from park advocates fed up with crime. 

"It's not going to solve the problem in and of itself, but it is a tool," said Ryan Romanesky, Pioneer Square Community Association. 

The American Civil Liberties Union was also critical. 

"In a free society, there's an expectation that you're not under surveillance by the government in public places. With these cameras, in affect, that's what's happening," ACLU Legislative Director Jennifer Shaw told KING 5 News in a written response.

The cameras, similar to what other U.S. cities use in crime fighting, tilt, zoom and pan around the park, providing a picture from long distances even a few miles.  They're monitored by the city's West Precinct Communication Center, but no one is monitoring in real time. The tapes are stored for two weeks, then erased. 

The mayor isn't sorry he skirted the wishes of the City Council. In fact, he wants to install more cameras in three other city parks:  Hing Hay in the Chinatown-International District, Occidental Square Park in Pioneer Square, and Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market, where business owners complain about constant drug dealing and public drunkeness. 

Response has been mixed among Capitol Hill residents.

On Tuesday, SurveyUSA asked 500 people if the cameras invade people's privacy. Fifty-one percent said no, while 45 percent believe it does.

Forty-six percent of people surveyed believe the benefits of the cameras outweigh the privacy issues, while 29 percent say the issues outweigh the benefits.

"I can understand both sides of the story, but I wish there was public notification," said Brad Mooney, Capitol Hill resident. 

"I don't agree with it," said Sandra Contreras, Capitol Hill resident.

So far, there have been no arrests or prosecutions from the cameras.

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