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Public surveillance from private property questioned

Georgetown plan raises new concern

- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 5, 2012

When D.C. police began installing surveillance cameras in neighborhoods more than five years ago as crime-fighting tools, privacy concerns voiced by civil liberties groups limited their scope and use.

Now a less-formal agreement from a citizens association planning to expand the Metropolitan Police Department's watchful eye in Georgetown over the next few months is hitting a similar hurdle.

The Citizens Association of Georgetown, a private neighborhood association, plans to pay for the installation of up to 10 cameras in the hopes that the additional surveillance will deter crime.

"The No. 1 thing we would like is deterrence," said Diane Colasanto, a member of the association's public safety committee. "We just want crime not to happen here. But if crimes are committed, we hope the images from the cameras are images police can use."

The Georgetown group's cameras will tape public spaces such as streets and sidewalks, and video that could be used to solve a crime will be turned over to police, the group's members said. The cameras will be located on private property, such as in residents' yards, and as a result they will skirt the stringent rules imposed on the police department's closed-circuit camera system.

With video-recording technology often just a cellphone click away and surveillance cameras prevalent in private businesses and homes, the notion of being watched is nothing new. But as the association begins to draft protocols for how the camera recordings will be handled, Ms. Colasanto said members have begun to raise more questions about who will have access to video taken by the cameras and under what circumstances.

"We want to make sure people's privacy is protected," she said.

Privacy concerns

A new wave of public-private surveillance partnerships, such as the one in Georgetown, has also caught the attention of civil liberties groups who caution that the original intention of a camera system is not the only way it can end up being used.

"Once the camera is there it's very tempting to say 'Let's look at it for other reasons,' " said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital.

As an example, Mr. Spitzer said, a divorce lawyer might try to subpoena surveillance footage that could show evidence of a spouse's affair by recording the person's travels through the neighborhood.

"Once something exists, it can often be hard to protect it from being used in other ways," he said.

Before installing the first of what is now 83 crime cameras monitoring D.C. neighborhoods after a 2006 crime wave, the Metropolitan Police Department adopted regulations governing their use, including the dictate that signs must be posted around their locations and that residents be informed of their implementation. Rules also governed who was allowed to view feeds from the cameras, how often the recordings were deleted and the viewpoint the cameras could have.

But no such rules are in place governing private cameras or the guarantee that citizens installing cameras will be versed in privacy issues, said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel with the D.C.-based Constitution Project.

"When you have such routine and regularized recording by a private group that is not covered by those regulations, it raises concerns," she said. "They could be subject to various abuses through ignorance of the kind of concerns they should have."

The neighborhood crime cameras are separate from the more than 5,000 cameras placed at traffic intersections, in schools and other government-run facilities that are monitored by the D.C. government.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat who oversees the District's public safety committee, said the placement of Georgetown cameras is analogous to property owners who put cameras in private parking lots or banks which may capture footage of the surrounding areas.

"They don't run into trouble unless the tape is misused," Mr. Mendelson said.

Test run

One block in Georgetown has had a test run with camera surveillance and residents' experiences are helping to guide the wider use of cameras in the neighborhood.

For three years, N Street resident Edward "Chip" Dent has helped operate three surveillance cameras on his block. The three cameras, paid for by the block's residents, have taped crimes such as hit-and-runs, the theft of packages from neighbors' doorsteps, and vandalism, Mr. Dent said.

Each time a resident reports a crime on the block, Mr. Dent transfers camera recordings — which are kept under lock and key in a closet in his home — to investigating police officers.

"Over a couple-year period, we've had six felony apprehensions and three convictions," Mr. Dent said, adding that police will often use the tapes to identify license plates or suspects.

Police officials could not say whether other neighborhood groups are using security cameras in a similar way but condoned the practice.

"The Metropolitan Police Department supports efforts of residents to secure their own property. If they obtain footage that may be useful in solving a case, we would review it and follow up accordingly," police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said.

Mixed results

Community groups in cities including Newport News, Va., and Houston have installed camera systems in recent years to ward off crime. Although they may bring peace of mind to residents, cameras are not always as helpful as people may expect them to be, specialists said.

"The cameras by and large do not prevent crime and by and large do not increase police closure rates," the Electronic Privacy Information Center's general counsel John Verdi said. "All it does is shift the burden from one area to another."

A four-year study of the Metropolitan Police Department's own camera system also found that the citywide system was ineffective at reducing crime.

Both the low number of cameras in the District as well as the fact they were not monitored live contributed to their ineffectiveness, the 2011 study by the Urban Institute concluded.

"If the cameras are not going to be live-monitored, there are even further questions about efficacy," Mr. Verdi said of the Georgetown plan. "Folks end up spending a lot of money on the technology ... but the benefits are marginal at best."

In Chicago and Baltimore — where camera systems are much larger and live-monitored — the Urban Institute study found that crime did tend to decrease in neighborhoods under surveillance.

For the Citizens Association of Georgetown, which expects to shell out between $2,000 and $2,500 per camera, the possibility that the cameras will do some good is worth it.

"People are very concerned about people getting mugged. We've had some crimes involving guns here, and that's very disturbing to people," Ms. Colasanto said. "The No. 1 thing is peace of mind of the residents."

Noting the faults he has seen in his block's cameras, like when glare from headlight blocks a license plate number, Mr. Dent admits the cameras are not perfect.

"But they are significantly better than having no one there," he said.

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