Sunday, April 13, 2008

Smile, Washington — the cameras are rolling whether you know it or not.

Police and homeland security officials say they will not post signs around the more than 5,200 cameras being consolidated into one network under an initiative announced by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

“At this time we don’t have any plans to do that,” said Darrell Darnell, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, which will manage the camera network. “This isn’t a crime surveillance tool, this is strictly a monitoring function. It may not seem like there’s a difference there, but there is.”

Signs informing residents and passers-by that they are entering an area that may be monitored have become a familiar sight around the 74 cameras in high-crime areas operated by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

But police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said the department will only place signs near the cameras it operates — not those operated by the roughly half-dozen other city agencies whose cameras will be added to the network.

“As it stands now, MPD will only mark crime cameras,” Miss Hughes said. “The others are operated by homeland security.”

Police will, however, still have access to footage from the other cameras under the Video Interoperability for Public Safety program announced last week.

Mr. Darnell said the devices under his control largely will serve to watch areas of the city for traffic control and other issues.

“We’re not surveilling,” he said. “Unless MPD comes to us and specifically asks for something, we’re not going to MPD unless we catch it.”

The first crime cameras were installed in city neighborhoods in 2006. Police at the time pledged to place signs in neighborhoods where the cameras were set up, but city law does not mandate that the notices be posted.

In San Francisco, which started its camera program just a few months before the District, city law requires a sign within 25 feet of a camera’s location declaring that the area is under surveillance.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat who has criticized the camera consolidation, said that whether signs should be posted near the cameras is one of many “unanswered questions” about the program.

“My concern is broader — that the regulations were worked out for the use of the crime cameras,” said Mr. Mendelson, chairman of the council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. “Bringing these 5,200 additional cameras into that system without thinking through the parameters is one of the problems with how they’re going about this.”

Mr. Mendelson said the rules governing the use of the crime cameras say the devices are not to be actively monitored as proposed under Mr. Fenty’s program.

When the first cameras were installed, police only used the devices as an investigative tool, requesting footage if they had reason to think a crime had occurred within view of a camera.

But Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier last year allowed officers to actively monitor the cameras, and Miss Hughes said the language of the council’s legislation permitted the change in policy.

“Chief Lanier is not prohibited from actively monitoring the cameras, as the statute states that ‘ … video feeds may not be monitored in real time …,’ not ‘… shall not be monitored in real time,’ ” Miss Hughes said in an e-mail. “The language of the statute was not intended to, nor should it be read to, be a limitation on the chief’s authority to order active monitoring.”

Mr. Darnell said officials will adhere to existing rules in each agency governing the use of the cameras until more comprehensive regulations can be developed.

The first phase of the camera consolidation is expected to begin May 1.

“Whatever policy they have in place, we will adhere to those current policies until we complete a process of developing a District-wide policy,” Mr. Darnell said. “Of the agencies that are coming over, they do have policies.”

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