The Seattle City Council voted seven to zero on March 29 to allow the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to use a $2.3 million Department of Homeland Security Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant to purchase new equipment as well as organize a number of training programs with other regional police departments.
According to Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, the UASI grants have been routinely accepted by the City Council. The UASI program offers $615 million to local police departments throughout the country for a variety of purposes including terrorism preparedness, emergency management and cybersecurity.
Since UASI grants don’t require cities to put up their own funds, they can be a way police departments fund themselves with less local government scrutiny.
In 2013, the SPD installed a network of surveillance cameras around the Port of Seattle and in the South End using UASI funds. This led to community backlash and a reversal by the department. As a result, the City Council passed an ordinance requiring new surveillance equipment to go through a privacy impact review process before it is used.
The SPD’s new wish list of equipment includes funding for camera systems, radar, binoculars with night vision, radiography X-ray systems and two tactical robots. The equipment is slated to go to both Seattle and other police departments in the region.
In the Public Safety Committee, the council added a proviso requiring most of the new equipment to undergo privacy impact reviews.
The grant also funds trainings with the Washington State Fusion Center, which organizes regional counterterrorism responses and intelligence sharing. Fusion centers have come under fire from police accountability advocates who claim that they worsen issues of police surveillance.
Scholars such as Arun Kundnani have long contended that “War on Terror” policy and rhetoric is Islamophobic. In his 2014 book, Kudnandi claims that the dominant United States’ framework for understanding crises such as terror attacks associates Muslims as the “other.”
In June 2020, in the midst of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the council banned weapons and tactics such as chokeholds and tear gas. These new expenditures on surveillance equipment and counterterrorism training could continue to invite criticism about the city council’s commitment to police demilitarization.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Apr. 6-12, 2022 issue.