D.C. surveillance cameras become top crime-fighting tools for police

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In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, after which surveillance video was used to identify two suspects, lawmakers and law enforcement officials across the country have called for broader use of cameras. In the District, council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, is among those who supports expanding the Metropolitan Police Department’s access to the devices.

Lawmakers put into place restrictions when the cameras were first introduced that prevent police from regularly live-monitoring video feeds — unlike other cities such as Baltimore and Chicago — meaning the District’s cameras have not been as useful in reducing crime, according to a 2011 Urban Institute study. The four-year study concluded that “cameras alone did not appear to have an effect on crime in the District.”

Pointing to an arrest made several days after a March drive-by shooting on North Capitol Street in which a suspect was identified through traffic-camera footage that caught his car speeding away from the scene, Mr. Wells said he hopes expansion of the department’s ability to live-monitor crime cameras will mean police catch criminals more quickly.

“If they had been able to use the camera in real time, they would have been able to catch them right off the bat,” said Mr. Wells, a candidate for mayor.

Mr. Wells also would like to see police use “hot spot” crime cameras that, like mobile speed cameras, could be deployed quickly to problem areas such as a street that has experienced a rash of break-ins or car thefts.

But expanding access and use of the cameras amounts to “mission creep,” diverting from the program’s original intentions, said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital.

“Mission creep is what happens,” he said. “As cameras become more and more ubiquitous, the government will be able to use this data flow to sort of keep tabs on where everybody is all the time.”

Given the privacy concerns raised by residents and advocacy groups when cameras were first deployed, expansion of camera use may face opposition, and Mr. Wells said he is seeking input from groups such as the ACLU on any forthcoming legislation.

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