- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

The ACLU and NAACP yesterday joined critics of Metropolitan Police Department plans for video surveillance of public spaces.
Nkechi Taifa, a member of the NAACP's Police Task Force and a Howard University law professor, said the cameras could lead to racial profiling and spying by police.
"Before the council acts on an issue of this magnitude, it should insist on data from responsible independent research," Mrs. Taifa told the D.C. Council.
Mrs. Taifa and other proponents of civil liberties voiced concerns about the cameras at a fact-finding hearing yesterday led by D.C. Council members Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, and Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican.
The Washington Times reported in February that the Metropolitan Police Department has plans to link hundreds of closed-circuit television cameras to monitor streets, parks, subway stations, schools and other public areas throughout the city.
The cameras, police officials said, will be used to counteract terrorism and domestic criminal activity. The cameras are monitored in a central control center that is activated, police say, only during times of crisis.
That "Big Brother" approach to crime-fighting is unconstitutional and likely to land the District in court, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union said.
Attorney Steven Block said the ACLU would begin looking for a client to file a test lawsuit if the city moves forward with the system.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who was not present for yesterday's hearing, has endorsed the surveillance plans, saying the cameras have helped bring crime under control in cities in Britain and Australia.
But speakers yesterday said the benefits of surveillance in cities such as London, where the government responded to the threat of terrorism by the Irish Republican Army by installing more than 150,000 cameras, is undocumented or overstated.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based think tank that studies abuse of electronic information, said the benefits of video surveillance "have been significantly overstated."
Mrs. Taifa testified that other American cities, such as Detroit, have abandoned experiments with cameras after years of less-than-satisfactory results.
Robert Wolf, a retired federal attorney who lives in Northwest, decried the loss of privacy in the city. "The use of video will not solve our problems. What will solve our problems is better police work, better intelligence and better cases for our prosecutors. Use of cameras is a waste of money without any regard given to their implications on civil rights and liberties."
Mrs. Patterson and Mrs. Schwartz were sympathetic to the concerns of the speakers, but both were confident that the regulations governing the use of the cameras could be written to address problems or potential for abuse.
"As long as the legislation is very careful and specific, we can use the cameras," Mrs. Patterson said. "But what I have found from these witnesses is that no one wants to see the District turn into London."
She said the District should take steps to ensure that other government agencies don't abuse the system.
"Prior to the Bush inauguration, the Secret Service asked the MPD to use the surveillance system for their own purposes. We need to find out or determine whether or not or in what instances we will allow someone else to use the video," she said.
Guy Gwynne, who chairs the Federation of Citizens Associations, said the MPD's regulations for the use of the proposed system are too vague.
"The guidelines are unresearched," he said, calling for a "commission or outside investigation team paid for by a one-time appropriation to study video surveillance on a global level."
City officials such as Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, testified on behalf of the surveillance system.
Privately operated cameras, Mrs. Kellems pointed out, are already in place in banks, at ATMs and in many thousands of businesses in the District.
"The cameras could be used as a powerful tool to serve the public trust in managing traffic, detecting crimes, reducing citizens' fear of crime and countering terrorism," she said.
Mrs. Schwartz said that since the events of September 11, fear of another attack has made camera surveillance a viable tool, but she said citizens want more police officers patrolling neighborhoods.
"Given a choice between nothing and a camera, citizens would of course pick the camera," she said.
After a parade of witnesses skeptical of the government's plans, one D.C. resident stepped forward to testify that she had no problems with cameras in public spaces.
Northwest resident Kathy Smith said women are more vulnerable to attack in public places, "especially at night."
"Private security officers and our sworn police officers are too few and far between to cover places now covered by security cameras," Mrs. Smith said.
Executive Assistant Police Chief Michael J. Fitzgerald, who recently took over the No. 2 spot in the department from departing Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, said Mrs. Smith's comments are more typical of the public's reaction to the plans for more cameras.
"We have community requests for these devices, and we are trying to accommodate them," Chief Fitzgerald said.
He said the command center's 12 cameras are currently activated and that officers are monitoring monuments, parks and buildings downtown.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide