By Charles Lam
Northwest Asian Weekly
In 2011, a committee of International District stakeholders came together to install a system of surveillance cameras in the neighborhood. Nearly two years later, the system has already made an impact and is set to be improved and expanded.
The cameras are placed throughout Chinatown and keep an eye on areas that formerly saw high rates of crime, such as Hing Hay Park and 6th Avenue.
In the time that the system has been active, in conjunction with increased police patrols, crime in the district has dropped.
In 2012, the first full year of the system’s operation, 848 police reports were filed in the International District, down from 959 in 2011 when there was no camera system, according to data from the Seattle Police Department. In 2013 to date, 439 reports have been filed, down from 525 during the same time period in 2011.
On June 21, the Seniors in Action Foundation (SIAF), the organization spearheading the program, held another fundraiser to improve the cameras, raising over $30,000. The funds will go towards improving the system’s infrastructure, growing its storage and the network capabilities. In addition, two or three additional cameras will be installed, pending the final fundraising amount, adding to the nine currently active cameras in the district.
When the cameras were first put in place, issues concerning privacy were raised, and the administrators of the system have done their best to alleviate those fears. The cameras are pointed towards public areas and are programed not to record windows, even if the cameras are moved, according to the SIAF, the organization who spearheaded the campaign. The footage is also not actively monitored; rather it is examined when there are reports of crime. Footage is also only kept on hand for two weeks before being deleted.
“Basically, we want to have the same kind of flexibility that the police have in downtown Seattle. Again, no one is watching the cameras on a regular basis. Only a handful of people can login to the cameras. It’s more about calling up that information and using it in court,” said Don Blakeney, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown–International District Business Improvement Area, the organization that administers the program. “… it gives everyone a greater sense of safety when they come out at night.”
The new system replaced a disconnected system of older private cameras that did little to prevent crime or provide evidence.
“[The cameras] are a tool we found we needed because the older cameras that are in the neighborhood — and there were plenty of cameras in the neighborhood already — were old and not sophisticated enough to stand up in court,” said Blakeney. “We had a situation in 2011 where a guy came down to the neighborhood and tagged 32 buildings with a spray can. We caught him on two cameras … you could see what he was doing and you could see the license plate of his truck, but when we went with this to court, the camera’s calendar had not been reset so the court found it inadmissible.”
At the very least, the cameras have triggered a public discussion in the International District about public safety. ID seniors have visited SPD dispatch offices to learn about language services available when calling 911.
Seattle Police Dispatch can immediately connect callers to Chinese speakers when they call.
“If people are talking, it’s the worst enemy for crime,” Blakeney said. “The cameras have been a catalyst to start a conversation, and that’s really powerful.” (end)
Charles Lam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.