- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

The chairman of the D.C. Council”s public safety committee yesterday called on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to postpone a plan to give police access to a network of more than 5,000 cameras across the city because of privacy and cost concerns.

“I think they need to hold up and answer these questions — and I don”t mean my questions but the questions that have been raised by the community about civil liberties, about costs and what exactly they are proposing,” said Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

Mr. Mendelson, who has been an outspoken critic of the camera consolidation, said he plans to hold a hearing next month on Mr. Fenty”s plans. He hopes to question the administration on the costs of the program and how officials will regulate who has access to the cameras.

“I want to know what safeguards are in place,” Mr. Mendelson said. “I don”t understand how they can do this without spending additional money.”

The first official phase of the camera initiative is slated to begin Thursday, when officials will begin consolidating camera functions for some agencies. But Mr. Fenty, a Democrat, announced the program April 8 and said then that the “transfer and consolidation” would begin “immediately.”

Fenty spokeswoman Leslie R. Kershaw said yesterday that the mayor supports Mr. Mendelson”s effort to hold a hearing but that work has already begun on the project.

“Mayor Fenty absolutely supports the council”s oversight process,” she said. “We have begun moving forward on implementation of the initiative.”

Under the program, roughly 5,200 cameras belonging to different D.C. agencies will be consolidated into one network managed by the city”s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. Mr. Fenty said the initiative will enhance the District”s countersurveillance and crime-fighting capabilities.

The District is spending $1.7 million this year to monitor the separate camera programs and will spend an estimated $885,000 in fiscal 2009 after the consolidation. Officials have said they also hope to receive federal grants for the program.

Mr. Mendelson is not the first to question the camera network.

Last week, the District-based nonprofit Constitution Project — which supported policies adopted by the police department when it began installing crime cameras in August 2006 — expressed concerns that Mr. Fenty’s initiative lacked proper privacy safeguards.

The organization in 2006 issued guidelines reflected in the development of the police policy.

“We aim to ensure, however, that the safeguards included in the … program are at least as strong as [and can perhaps exceed] the standards set by existing MPD policy,” Sharon Bradford Franklin wrote to Mr. Fenty in an April 15 letter.

Darrell Darnell, the District’s homeland security director, said officials will adhere to agencies’ existing rules that govern access to the cameras until more comprehensive regulations can be developed.

Most of the cameras are operated by D.C. Public Schools, which has roughly 3,700 at locations such as offices and schools. The devices can be monitored on-site by contracted security guards and principals during the day. Footage also is archived onto compact discs at a central command center and can be provided to the Metropolitan Police Department upon request.

“The schools in general work in conjunction” with the police department, schools spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said.

DCPS cameras — which cost as much as $4,000 per location — generally are monitored passively, and footage usually is retrieved after a crime or incident occurs. In some cases, officials will monitor buildings where an alarm does not work or an after-school event is taking place.

But Mr. Mendelson said consolidating such cameras into a citywide network with expanded access raises additional questions.

“ ’Regulations’ is a very general word for a lot of things,” Mr. Mendelson said. “If we limit live monitoring then what do the police do with school security cameras? What do we do with a [Department of Transportation] engineer who apparently will have access to all the cameras?”

A date for the public hearing has not been set.

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