Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell has asked the council’s legislative staff to revisit the city’s police-intelligence ordinance with the goal of strengthening it, he said Wednesday.
Enacted in 1979, the ordinance – in part – restricts how and when Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers can collect information, including photographs and video, about an individual’s participation in a political or religious demonstration.
The ordinance says officers can collect such information only with authorization from a superior or, if time is of the essence, on the condition that the information is purged within five working days.
Harrell spoke about his request at a meeting of the council’s public-safety committee Wednesday.
The ordinance has come under scrutiny due to questions about police surveillance at recent demonstrations against police brutality and bias in the criminal-justice system.
“Perhaps this procedure by which we ensure compliance with the intelligence ordinance has not been scrutinized as thoroughly as it could be, and I’d be the first to admit that,” Harrell said.
“There have been an awful lot of lawful protests going on and we want to make sure we are living within the spirit of the intelligence ordinance,” he added.
The city uses an independent auditor for the ordinance and that auditor regularly reviews files related to the authorizations that SPD officers receive for the collection of restricted information.
The current auditor, retired lawyer David Boerner, has determined the SPD to be in compliance in every case he has reviewed since he took over the position in 2005, he said Wednesday.
But Boerner has not reviewed files related to information collected under the five-day purge rule because the SPD has not kept records on that type of activity, he said.
In addition, Boerner has not sought to review any SPD computer files.
The council’s legislative staff will consider whether the audit process should include purge activity and whether it should be updated to account for new technologies, Harrell said.
“We are staunch defenders of the constitution and the rules set forth in the intelligence ordinance,” Lt. Eric Barden, who commands the SPD’s criminal-intelligence division, said Wednesday.
SPD officers take photos or video at demonstrations only when “we have reasonable suspicion to believe that crimes may occur,” Barden said.
The SPD’s employee manual is more clearly restrictive than the intelligence ordinance. It states, “If demonstrators are not acting unlawfully, police can’t photograph them.”