Category Archives: IT

Surveillance technology ordinance collapsing under its own bureaucratic weight

In July of 2017, the City Council passed an ordinance requiring the Council to approve city departments’ use of technologies that could be used for surveillance purposes. It also required all of the technologies current in use that meet that definition to be reviewed and approved. Last year the Council amended the ordinance to set up a Community Surveillance Working Group (CSWG) to review and assess the technologies before they come up for the Council’s approval.

This morning, two technologies came up for approval by the Council’s Governance, Equity and Technology Committee, and it quickly became clear that despite the best of intentions, the surveillance technology ordinance has created a big, slow, bureaucratic mess.

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SPD still wrestling with overtime spending – and the Seattle IT department

This morning the City Council revisited a recurring pain point: the Seattle Police Department’s inability to stay within budget on its overtime expenses.

The issues with how the Seattle Police Department manages overtime for its officers go back for years, if not decades, but they came under particular scrutiny starting in October 2014 when then-Chief Kathleen O’Toole requested an audit of the department’s overtime practices.  It took the City Auditor 18 months to issue the audit report; in the intervening time the City Budget Office and the City Council became acutely aware of the budget pain inflicted when SPD’s overtime expenses went deep into the red.

After the audit report was released in April 2016 and the Council was briefed, the City Council passed a resolution requesting quarterly reports through the end of 2017 from SPD on its progress in addressing the recommendations from the Auditor to get its overtime practices under control. Those reports showed some progress, but not enough to satisfy the Council that the issues had been resolved, so last fall the Council requested an interdepartmental team be convened to:

  1. Comprehensively describe SPD’s overtime policies and practices in relation to the findings and recommendations in the 2016 Office of City Auditor report on SPD overtime controls;
  2. Identify the sources and root causes of the historical gap between SPD budgeted and actual overtime spending (overexpenditure gap) that accounts for factors such as service level needs, staffing levels, population growth, any shifts in systemic practices, and historical events, and that seeks to distinguish between legitimate overtime needs and unnecessary overtime;
  3. Evaluate best practices in overtime across the country that may inform SPD’s systems; and
  4. Issue recommendations on (a) the most impactful strategies to reduce the overexpenditure gap and (b) strategic approaches to overtime budgeting and budget requests (supplemental and fall budgets) that will give Council a meaningful opportunity to review and approve or disapprove of anticipated overtime expenditures.

This morning, that workgroup delivered its response to the Council.

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Surveillance technology ordinance headed to adoption on Monday

After several months of work, this morning the Council moved forward an update to the city’s ordinance regulating use of surveillance technology by SPD and other city departments.

What started out as a fairly simple task, extending the current rules beyond hardware to include software and web services, turned out to be a nearly intractable set of complex issues. In the end the ordinance’s sponsor, Council member Gonzalez, settled for addressing just a subset of the issues in what she referred to this morning as “phase one.”

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Council continues discussion of surveillance technologies

The City of Seattle’s parking enforcement division uses automated license plate readers to identify cars (and drivers) with multiple parking tickets so they can boot or impound the vehicles as necessary. SPD uses that same data to identify stolen cars, as well as those wanted in relation to specific criminal activities. Back in 2012, New York City took it further: they used cameras on street light poles to track people coming and going from mosques — an act that most people think stepped over the line of acceptable surveillance.

How the City of Seattle acquires and uses surveillance technology — and the data gleaned from it — was the topic of a Council hearing this morning, one of a series in the ongoing process of updating the city’s laws on surveillance.

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