Last night the Bellingham City Council voted to ask the chief of police and the mayor to withdraw a grant request to the Department of Justice for the acquisition of the Intrado-Beware threat warning system. The administration agreed to abide by the council’s request and use the grant funding for another purpose within the police department. The decision by the council came at the end of a second hearing during which over a dozen citizens strongly unleashed their views. My report on the first hearing, held on 23 Jun 2014 can be read here. You can also view the video of citizen comments here (scroll to 40.00 on the video counter).
Yesterday’s hearing was scheduled after the council meeting two weeks ago at which the police department (no department representatives were present) provided an agenda bill for information only. Their plan was to ask the Department of Justice for a grant in the amount of $25,000 to fund the Intrado-Beware threat warning system. The grant also included $15,000 for purchase of additional ballistic plates to be added to body armor for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. The body armor purchase was not contested although it is unclear if that request will go forward in that the Bellingham Police Department was the initiating agency.
As with the first hearing, the council received some sharp and often colorful blowback during the comment period. Although the police couched the justification for Intrado in terms of officer and community safety, most of the comments were about the invasive nature of the software and the implications for privacy. Several noted that the Supreme Court recently ruled that the police cannot search a cell phone without first obtaining a search warrant. The Intrado system with its allegedly sweeping ability to gather private information from many open and unidentified commercial sources appeared to serve as a possible workaround to the cell phone search restriction.
Those commenting also had grave reservations over the implications of a private company engaging in what is essentially police work. The algorithms its software uses for arriving at threat assessments is proprietary. No studies appear to be available that attest to the overall utility of the system although the police department provided some anecdotal evidence of the system’s assistance during several incidents. Again, there were no reports of incidents where the police may have been misled by the software. The lack of information and the secrecy around the product served to give the council pause.
Many people complimented our police force for generally being a good one. They also opined that the acquisition of this threat warning system would irrevocably harm any trust the public now has with the police. Intrado itself came in for much criticism as it appears that the Intrado-Beware is a recent, notably unproven extension to its rather generalized service across the U.S. in providing 911 services to communities. [Note: Intrado, along with Century Link, was involved in the April 911 outage in Washington state during which 4,500 emergency calls went unanswered.]
The council was also concerned about the fact that the initial documentation for information during the 23 June council meeting did not reveal that the grant only covered the first year of a five-year agreement. The agreement evidently called for an additional $20,000 per year for service, thus obligating the city for $80,000. The police chief and the city attorney were left to respond to the council’s questions while the mayor provided little input to the discussion. She had previously (on 23 June) assured the council that once the police were present during the second hearing to answer questions, the rationale for the Intrado system would be convincing. It did not work out that way.