- The Washington Times - Friday, November 8, 2002

The D.C. Council yesterday passed legislation to regulate the police department's use of surveillance cameras to monitor the city's monuments, federal buildings and public venues downtown.

The council initially opposed the legislation on a 7-6 vote. But late into the evening it reversed its position and voted 7-6 to allow the Metropolitan Police Department to use its 14 closed-circuit television cameras but with legislative restrictions.

Council member Sandy Allen, Ward 8 Democrat, changed her mind and moved to reconsider the original vote.

"I came to feel that if we didn't do something today, we would have cameras in our back yard," Mrs. Allen said.

Several members had strong reservations about the restrictions and the cameras themselves. Some, referring to protests, special events and marches downtown, said the surveillance invaded people's right to privacy and freedom of speech. Others said the regulations were suspect and didn't sufficiently limit installation of additional cameras.

Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee that has oversight of the police, insisted that her colleagues pass the restrictions she sponsored.

"I urge you all to take this opportunity now to put some restrictions on the police," Mrs. Patterson said. "If any members want to draft legislation to outlaw the cameras, please do so in the future but do not leave the police department unregulated today."

The regulations allow the cameras to be used only for special events, such as scheduled rallies, protests and marches. The cameras cannot be used to target any individual, unless an individual is seen committing a crime. In addition, the system will be used only to observe locations that are in public view and where there is no general expectation of privacy.

No recordings are to be made without public knowledge or without a court order. Any recordings made will be stored for only 72 hours, unless the tape is needed as evidence.

The addition of new cameras was the council's greatest concern. The regulations say the police must give the public notice if any new cameras are installed. Additions may be made only under "exigent circumstances," a stipulation most members said was too vague.

The issue split the council down the middle.

At noon, Mrs. Patterson had enough votes to pass the regulations, said council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, who led the charge against them.

By 4 p.m., six members had changed their minds, refusing to make the cameras a matter of law. But by 7 p.m., a second and final vote was taken and the legislation passed.

"These regulations are unclear, vague and, if passed, the police will be given regulations that can be interpreted in many ways," Mr. Mendelson said.

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, an at-large Republican who opposed the measure, said the fact that the police department had agreed to operate the cameras using the regulations made them moot, and that it was not imperative to make them law.

The Washington Times first reported on the use of surveillance cameras in February.

The department at that time announced plans to link hundreds of cameras already in use by various agencies to the Joint Operations Command Center at its headquarters on Indiana Avenue NW in addition to the 14 that police had been using since September 11, 2001.

The report prompted civil liberties groups to raise concerns that the vast surveillance was an invasion of privacy and a Big Brotherlike encroachment on personal freedoms.

Council member Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, who initially said he would vote to pass the regulations, said he wanted to send a message to the police department and the mayor that their activation of the cameras without public knowledge would not be tolerated.

"I think you will see a group of us introduce a companion piece saying we want no cameras," Mr. Chavous told The Times.

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