- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

The mayor’s office wants to allow police officers to use surveillance cameras every day throughout the District — not just during special events on the Mall.

Deputy Mayor Edward D. Reiskin plans to propose legislation this month that would expand the Metropolitan Police Department’s network of closed-circuit cameras.

The bill would increase the number of surveillance cameras and allow police to watch “for regular anti-crime activity” in a pilot program.

“The issue has been raised to me at a lot of community meetings,” says Mr. Reiskin, deputy mayor for public safety and justice. “People are saying, ‘We know stuff is going on, we know the police can’t always be there, why can’t we just use cameras?’

“It’s not a panacea solution, but it’s another tool we can provide law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

The bill proposes testing increased surveillance at three sites that have not been identified.

In 2002, the D.C. Council voted 7-6 to allow the police department’s 19 closed-circuit cameras to be activated only for special events, such as protests and marches. Those cameras can be used only in public places, where there is no expectation of privacy.

Mr. Reiskin says the new legislation has emanated from renewed community interest in homeland security after last year’s London subway bombings. London authorities and businesses operate about 500,000 surveillance cameras, and the network helped identify the attackers.

Meanwhile, Baltimore police have said their 250 surveillance cameras have cut crime in problem neighborhoods. Chicago also has served as a model for camera networks, and cities such as Philadelphia and Scranton, Pa., are considering starting their own programs.

Critics of surveillance cameras say they are an unnecessary encroachment on citizens’ privacy, and point to a 2002 British Home Office study of networks in the United Kingdom and the United States that found cameras have reduced crime “to a small degree.”

“If such a bill does come forward, we will work very hard to oppose it,” says Stephen Block, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area. “We think it’s misplaced and the cameras provide, at best, a false sense of security.”

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the District-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, says significant privacy issues are associated with camera surveillance and the case has not yet been made that cameras are an effective means of crime control.

“It becomes very intrusive,” Mr. Rotenberg says. “Just like we have, or used to have, laws on wire surveillance, we need to have laws on video surveillance.”

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey says he has been working closely with Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Mr. Reiskin on using the cameras, which would be moved around the District to deter crime in area hot spots.

“I think it’s a good idea, and I think it’s long overdue,” Chief Ramsey says. “There are some areas where we have street robberies and assaults, that cameras trained on public space can be useful in identifying people that commit those crimes.

“I think they would be very, very useful.”

Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat who is running for council chairman, says she introduced legislation last session that would have enabled police to operate a pilot camera program, but opted not to push it through the council.

She says public input on the issue would be important in deciding whether to approve the bill.

“I would want it to go through the public hearing process,” Mrs. Patterson says. “It’s a policy we should have a debate on.”

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat who heads the judiciary committee, says his panel would have to review any legislation submitted to the council and ensure a balance is struck between the expectation of privacy and effective law enforcement.

“Cameras are pretty good at helping to identify criminals after a criminal act, [but] there’s not a lot of evidence that they prevent criminal acts,” Mr. Mendelson says.

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