- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 20, 2005

The District has begun using surveillance cameras to keep an electronic eye out for illegal dumpers, riling advocates of civil liberties who call the tactic intrusive and unconstitutional.

About a half-dozen of the portable, motion-sensor cameras are monitoring alleys and abandoned lots. Their quarry: those who dump industrial and hazardous waste on public property.

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey yesterday said illegal dumping is a “huge” problem but directed questions about the cameras to the Department of Public Works, the agency in charge of the program.

Residents in the 1200 block of Linden Place Northeast petitioned to have a camera placed in an alley behind their properties after a burning body was discovered there in June.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, has asked neighborhood groups to keep track of the cameras occasionally, to ease concerns over violations of civil liberties.

But Mary Myers, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works, would not disclose locations other than to say cameras would rotate every few weeks among chronic dumping sites.

“Dumpers are mainly creatures of habit,” Miss Myers said. “They’ll keep coming back to the same locations. If they know where the cameras are, they’ll just go and dump somewhere else.

“We don’t want that,” she said. “We want to catch them.”

Fines for illegal dumping range from $1,000 to $25,000, depending on the quantity and the material, Miss Myers said.

Violators also face jail time and could have their vehicles confiscated if they are caught on camera.

Johnny Barnes, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, said the cameras also watch law-abiding residents and that raises privacy issues.

“As a tool for preventing crime, the cameras are not that helpful,” Mr. Barnes said. “When you measure that against the constitutional rights and privacy concerns, we will lean in favor of constitutional rights.”

The ACLU wrote to D.C. government and police officials, expressing concerns about where and how the cameras would be used, Mr. Barnes said.

Four public-works employees and four police officers will monitor the cameras, which cost about $5,000 each, Miss Myers said.

“The average litterbug isn’t looking for an abandoned alley or lot to drop a candy bar wrapper,” Miss Myers said. “We’re talking about people who unload truckloads of debris. They’re looking for a place big enough to get a truck into, where they don’t think anyone will care if they leave two hot-water heaters and carpeting from a house they’ve just cleared out.”

She said other cities deploy such cameras — including Baltimore, where officials recently approved cameras that issue a recorded audio warning. There are no immediate plans for the District to use such technology, she said.

But Mr. Barnes said cameras do little to deter criminals, who merely relocate.

“If a crime is committed, obviously [cameras] aid in catching the crooks, but they don’t aid in preventing the deed,” the ACLU said. “We have maintained that it’s far better to have a cop than a camera. It’s more cost-effective to use the money for more officers on the street.”

The District already uses 19 closed-circuit surveillance cameras, which are mounted primarily on buildings near the Mall. Those cameras, which operate around-the-clock when activated, are used during special events, emergencies and heightened terrorism alerts.

Edward D. Reiskin, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said the camera campaign against dumpers is still in a pilot phase.

But some features already address the ACLU’s main concerns, Mr. Reiskin said, noting that the cameras do not constantly monitor an area and are not on a closed circuit.

“And they’re motion-sensored,” he said. “That’s an important differential.”

Mr. Barnes said the ACLU’s stance would not soften even if residents and merchants endorse the cameras.

“It doesn’t make a difference, not from our point of view,” he said. “The cameras give [residents] this illusion of security, safety and law enforcement.”

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