Local trash collection agency Waste Management announced last week a new partnership with Eastside law enforcement agencies to help drivers report crime — if they see it.
In addition to picking up last night’s potato peelings and recycling empty soda cans, area garbage truck drivers will now be trained to spot and report suspicious or illegal activity to the authorities. Ninety Waste Management drivers serving Kirkland, Redmond, Bothell, Issaquah, Duvall and Carnation received “Waste Watch” training before heading out on their routes April 1.
“The Waste Watch program shows them what to look out for, what to do and what not to do,” Waste Management spokeswoman Katie Salinas said. “They know these streets very well and they can instantly tell if something’s out of place … The drivers have been doing this for years.”
Waste Management corporate security officer Kris Spilsbury coordinated with the various law enforcement agencies to conduct the training, which the company plans to expand across the country.
A former FBI agent, Spilsbury listed a number of instances where drivers had benefitted from the brief instruction, which takes advantage of the drivers’ eyes and ears in the community.
“I just finished a training in Corona, California and a few days later a driver spotted a young man spraying graffiti on a bridge,” Spilsbury said. “He reported the crime and the police came out and arrested the young man.”
He said trash collectors are encouraged to report substances that raise their suspicions.
“There have been a couple of instances where they’ve reported dead bodies … Things like meth lab chemicals, hoses, packets that they use … Blister packs that they use for colds, when there are thousands of them there, ID theft. These things have been reported,” he said. “Sometimes they report things that are suspicious, but the police would resolve that there was nothing criminal … If it causes you to become suspicious, to say ‘My gut feeling is that’s not right,’ then often times it’s not right … They are not crime fighters, they’re just good citizens that are trained a bit better than average.”
The program, however, comes with question marks about privacy rights.
After reviewing the Waste Watch program and hearing Spilsbury’s comments, Jennifer Shaw, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, warned of the legal limits to “looking.”
“If all they had was people looking at what was happening around them — if doors were open, for example — then that wouldn’t be a concern,” she said. “But if they’re saying ‘These are the things used to manufacture amphetamines’ … Then yes, we are concerned about this.”
She also cited concerns with the invasion of privacy rights protected by the Fourth Amendment, as well as the Washington State Constitution’s Article 1, section 7, which offers broader privacy protections. It reads, “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” In a 1990 Washington Supreme Court case, State v. Boland, the court specifically cited the state’s constitution in a ruling which effectively barred police from searching a resident’s trash.
“It does seem this is a way for law enforcement to get around the state constitution,” she said.
While many routes in Kirkland are serviced by fully-automated trucks, which use an automated arm to lift the trash, many rural county routes are not. Those routes require the workers to manually remove the lids and hoist the garbage into the truck.
Concerns over using civilians for crime detection was heightened last year after it was revealed that a 2006 Department of Homeland Security pilot program with New York City fire departments authorized firefighters to report suspicious persons or materials they saw while carrying out their normal duties.
Still, Chance Abbey, a Waste Management route manager and former truck driver for five years, said the concerns over the Waste Watch program are overblown.
“When you pick up trash for a living, you don’t take the trash home with you. That’s not the name of the game,” he said.
The average Waste Management driver in Kirkland serves 900 customers over the course of an eight hour shift. Abbey said that while drivers are happy getting public safety advice, they’re focused on the work and meeting their productivity goals.
“You just don’t have time,” he said.