Seattle Mayor returns police drones to the manufacturer

Seattle's police force were very hot-to-trot for a pair of new surveillance drones, an issue that became a lightning rod for criticism of the scandal-haunted force. After public outcry, the city's mayor simply returned the UAVs to their manufacturer

Later this afternoon, Mayor Mike McGinn will announce that he is grounding the Seattle Police Department's controversial drone program and returning the two remotely controlled planes to the vendor, according to sources at City Hall who asked not to be named. "The mayor and chief had a conversation and agreed it was time to end the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program," one of the sources tells us. "It had become a distraction to the two things the department is working hard on, general public safety and community-building work."

The news comes on the heels of—and largely in response to—an angry hearing yesterday held by Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, who was considering legislation to restrict the use of the drones for police investigations. The program has created a slowly burning outcry since 2010, when the city purchased the units for intelligence gathering with the help of a federal Homeland Security grant.

Crime Mayor Will Kill SPD's Drone Program [Dominic Holden/The Stranger]

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)


  1. If one wants to get into a bit more of the dirty details, both Harrell and McGinn are running for mayor this fall (McGinn for a second term); and McGinn cunningly upstaged Harrell’s plan to kibosh the generally disliked drone project.  (now, if they’d just race each other in similar fashion to rid us of the traffic light cameras… well, that would be just fine with me. yet, that’s less likely as those apparently haul in revenue)

    1. The red light cams also haul in a lot of revenue for the city of Lynnwood (a northern suburb for those who aren’t familiar)

      I’ve been given 3 tickets by the red light cams and successfully contested both. Early on they’d ticket people who were in the intersections as the lights turned red. And early on, the yellows only lasted 3 or 4 seconds. Now everyone comes to a screeching stop when the lights turn yellow. I’ll bet the data would show there’s been an increase in rear end collisions since they put up the cameras. It might have decreased T-Bones, but I wouldn’t assume by very much. I’d hazard a guess that impaired drivers miss the lights at a fairly constant rate cameras or not.

      Everyone knows the red light cameras are entirely a revenue generator, and the city doesn’t care whether or not they actually reduce injuries and deaths.

      1. “I’ve been given 3 tickets by the red light cams and successfully contested both.” ⅔ ain’t bad, son. it’s a passing grade.

          1. Less than 60 = F
            60 – 70 = D
            70 – 80 = C
            80 – 90 = B
            90 – 100 = A

            That’s standard US grading.

          2. Wow, things have gone to crap since I graduated high school in ’82.  Cut off for our A was 96.  You kids have it easy these days!

          3.  I guess the 96 was for the A+; it’s been a while.  Here’s from your source:

            “Some schools in the United States may require 70% to pass:

            A: 93-100% B: 85-92% C: 77-84% D: 70-76% F: 69% and below”

            Our rural Illinois school district was one of these.

      2. ” I’ve been given 3 tickets by the red light cams and successfully contested both.”

        You sure you should be driving in your condition, son?

    2. Yay for McGinn not standing up to Gregoire and leaving us on the hook for boondoggles like transportation project cost overruns and public stadiums for private profit.

  2. These particular drones were not all that useful.  Their maximum flight time was 10 minutes, and they cost $41,000 each.  Mayor McGinn didn’t declare that our police will be prohibited from using autonomous and/or remotely-operated devices to perform general surveillance of the public; he said we’re not going to use these.

    Though it was the right thing to do, I think this was largely a political maneuver.  McGinn is up for reelection, he’s tied his reputation to his Chief of Police (who leads a force found by the US DoJ to engage in constitutional violations one in five times they use force) he has nearly a dozen competitors for Mayor, and one of those competitors is Bruce Harrell.  Harrell is chair of Seattle City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee.  This week, Harrell introduced a bill (C.B. 117707; supporting memo, CRS report on drones in domestic surveillance referenced within; video of the hearing, and some good reporting on it) that would put some limits on the use of the two drones SPD bought last year with DHS grant money.

    I suspect that bill will die now that the pressure is off. Instead, I would like to see it modified to be a bit less specific to drones, achieving the following:

    Restrict city staff use of facial recognition and other biometric identification technology on any device to confirming the identity of the target of a warrant
    Forbid city staff from equipping any remotely-operated or autonomous device with weapons
    Forbid city staff from conducting general surveillance of the public with any device
    Forbid city staff use of any remotely-operated or autonomous recording device without warrant

    But that seems unlikely, because people are so focused on the hot-button topic of drones.

    Much focus will be shifted to a H.B. 1771 in the Washington Legislature, which would establish “standards for the use of public unmanned aircraft systems.” It’s a good start, and it would be nice to see statewide regulations so cities whose citizens don’t have the gumption that Seattle’s do will also be somewhat protected, but I don’t think it goes far enough.

    Meanwhile, the same police department who scrapped the two drones, who were recently forced into a consent decree by the DoJ because of their rampant abuses of power, have secured more grant money from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to deploy a network of 30 pole-mounted surveillance cameras, 160 wireless access points, and miles of fiber optic cable around the city, “for port security.” The same grant—which they administer for everyone in the area—resulted in them purchasing cameras “for the stadiums and things” to which they have at least partial access, says Seattle Police Department Commander of Special Operations, Assistant Chief Paul A. McDonagh #4708 (the same guy who was head manager of the SPD East Precinct when in 2010 they and the Mayor side-stepped City Countil and snuck surveillance cameras into my neighborhood park before we successfully lobbied for their removal). McDonagh says the primary use of this $5MM system will be overturned boats and kayaks. “I don’t call it a surveillance camera—surveillance to me implies someone is sitting there watching it all the time. These are just cameras watching a general area,” he says.

    The wireless surveillance mesh network project “is borderline problematic,” says another Mayoral candidate, ex-police officer and current member of City Council, Tim Burgess.

    1. I am vey much against surveillance drones, but I do see some value in putting up limited cameras in high violent crime areas.

      Granted there’s a very slippery slope if that happens. If the city’s allowed to put up half a dozen cams in a block sized area with the highest % of violent crime, what’s to stop them from canvassing the whole town.

      But still, if I have to choose which encroachment on civil liberties to fight, I’d worry more about drones than stationary cameras.

      It all goes back to Franklin of course: “Those who would give up fundamental liberties for a little temporary security deserve neither”

      1. Instead of batting down each new infringing device that comes along, let’s pass laws prohibiting the actions these fascists and fools hope to perform with them.  That I’m out in public doesn’t mean it’s okay for my government to record where I’ve been and what I’ve said, stockpiling all that information about me just in case it’s of interest later.

        1. Absolutely true.

          I’d rather not be recorded by the government constantly, and banning comprehensive surveillance is definitely best for the people.  I guess, knowing that I’m constantly tracked online and taking my privacy into my own hands has given me a bit of a jaundiced view of the situation.  It’s best to lobby hard against this surveillance, but I’m sure they tide of technology will make it just far too tempting for governments to monitor what everyone does all the time they’re in public.  It’s becoming too easy and cheap.  And the people don’t seem to notice as long as the local governments don’t do flashy stunts like buy drones.

        2. A much better law is that they get installed watching the elected officials and police first.  I’ve often found that once you remind them that these stupid ideas will apply to them as well they give them more thought.

          Here Mr. Mayor you have to wear this camera around your neck all day.  The feed will be open to anyone who cares to watch… you don’t want to?  Do you have something to hide?

  3. Oh, and the guy SPD put in charge of the drone program?  Greg W. Sackman #6052, who was the head cop on the scene during the bloody 2005 police beating of Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes on the sidewalk outside a bar in my neighborhood.  The police were detaining Barnes’ friend for tossing a piece of paper on the ground, and when Barnes asked why they were doing it, they beat the shit out of him.  Go look at the photo.Sackman watched the beating, and was later found by SPD’s internal investigations to have acted inappropriately.  Not long after that, he was promoted from Sergeant to Lieutenant.  A few years later, somebody thought we ought to trust him to oversee a system of flying surveillance cameras.  You can’t make this stuff up.

  4. These drones clearly sucked.  Drones really are not really the problem though.  I think people have fixated on them as a symbol of the larger problem.
    Police in dense areas need some limited air capacity.  I would rather a drone do it than a helicopter because the drone is cheaper.  The problem isn’t the drone.  The problem is what the drone is being used for.  I am okay with a drone being used to follow a fleeing car instead of having a pile of cops blast down the highway at 100 mph in a chase.  I’m okay with a drone circling over major police action in the same way they currently use helicopters.  These are all things that drones can do well.

    What I am NOT okay with is having a 24/7 camera in the sky looking for people growing pot or warrantlessly tracking people.

    The problem isn’t the tech.  The problem are the laws.  If the police want to stalk someone, they should have to get approval and follow due process.  I’m even okay with this being a temporarily secret process where it doesn’t become general knowledge until a trial or a reasonable length of time.

    We can’t fight the tech.  The tech is going to change by the time we have laws in place to control it.  Technology just changes too fast to for law to keep up.  We need to fight the behavior. 

    1. Technology just changes too fast to for law to keep up.  We need to fight the behavior.

      Exactly.  But as long as the electorate is only thinking about the short term costs and benefits, this kind of globally Good Thing simply can’t happen.  It’s a crying shame, and I wish more people would think about usage and behavior.  But it would seem that the general public is only interested in spoon-fed snippets on the scale of less than a year (eg Anonymous DDoSed a server for a few weeks, until we got bored.  And Occupy Wallstreet (or any occupy for that matter), who’s heard about an occupy movement since October?)

      1. It certainly is a mystery how you’ve heard nothing from the camping-based Occupy movement since the onset of winter…

        1. Who do you think is out demanding that local governments prevent police from performing general surveillance of the public with flying surveillance cameras?

  5. Please mark at least one:
    | | wrong size
    | | wrong color
    | | damaged
    | | not as described
    | | thought it was cooler
    | | neighbors with pitchforks

    1. I wonder what the restocking fee was?  If there wasn’t one, I want one to play around with for a month for free!

  6. It was a JOINT decision with the chief of SPD (note the use of the term “we” and not “I”):


    I spoke with SeattlePD Chief Diaz & we agreed to end unmanned aerial vehicle program so SPD can focus on public safety & community building

    3:53pm – 7 Feb 13

Comments are closed.