Seattle Police Apologize for Secret Surveillance

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
June 15, 1999 12:00 am

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SEATTLE, WA — Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper yesterday apologized for his department’s surreptitious taping of last week’s news conference sponsored by several community groups announcing public hearings into allegations of police abuses.

Stamper told the Seattle Times that his department will destroy the tape.

“In retrospect, we should have introduced ourselves, clearly marked our video camera with `SPD’ . . . and sought your permission before taping,” Stamper wrote in a letter to Oscar Eason Jr., executive director of the Seattle chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“Announcing ourselves and seeking your permission to tape would have shown you the respect you deserve,” the chief wrote.

According to the paper, participants in the news conference learned the identity of the police employee sent to tape the conference only after one of them casually asked which media outlet he was from. The employee was dressed in street clothes and had set up his camera alongside those from local TV stations.

His presence sparked outrage from conference participants and a pointed letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, which demanded that the tape be destroyed.

At best, the incident was seen as unseemly and insensitive. At worst, “it was spying in the worst tradition of the Seattle Police Department,” Doug Honig, ACLU of Washington Public Education Director told the paper.

Indeed, the department’s notorious surveillance practices in the 1960s and ’70s led to a Seattle ordinance — the first of its kind in the country — prohibiting surveillance of individuals or groups solely because of their political views.

The ACLU’s Honig applauded Stamper’s decision, but continued to wonder how the department could be so insensitive as to send a video camera to a news conference by groups whose constituents have little or no reason to trust police.

“We are pleased to hear they recognized that this whole thing was poorly handled and a mistake,” Honig told the Times. “They’ve acted responsibly.”

Lisa Ross, the police department’s Public Information Director, said the department will keep its distance tomorrow when the groups hold their first public hearing.

Among the sponsoring groups are the Urban League, the NAACP chapters in Tacoma, Seattle and Everett, the state Commission on African-American Affairs and El Centro de la Raza.

The hearings come at a time when the Police Department has come under intense scrutiny for its handling of complaints.

In a report issued on June 14, the ACLU of Washington called for the creation of an independent office for police accountability, saying that Seattle’s system for investigating citizen complaints of police misconduct has failed.

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