Wednesday, April 9, 2008

D.C. officials are giving police access to more than 5,000 closed-circuit TV cameras citywide that monitor traffic, schools and public housing — a move that will give the District one of the largest surveillance networks in the country.

“The primary benefit of what we’re doing is for public health and safety,” said Darrell Darnell, director of the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, who announced the initiative along with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty yesterday.

But the announcement left some civil liberties advocates and a key D.C. Council member concerned.

“We’ve been sort of sounding the alarm on this stuff for a long time, saying these little pieces — they grow,” said Art Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area. “You put a camera here, it’s not so bad, you put a camera there, it’s not so bad. But then it turns out all the sudden, we find out there are 5,200 cameras. That’s a big number.”

Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said that the proposed move was “breathtaking” and that the initiative “has not been thought through.”

“There is a huge civil liberty implication because they’re talking about a fully [interoperable] system,” said Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat. “If it is as big as they are suggesting, this is a major change.”

The Video Interoperability for Public Safety (VIPS) program will consolidate the more than 5,200 cameras operated by D.C. agencies — including D.C. Public Schools and the D.C. Housing Authority — into one network managed by the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

The program will allow agencies to share camera video feeds and provide the city with a network that is actively monitored and that Mr. Darnell said will operate “24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Mr. Fenty, a Democrat, said the initiative will enhance the District’s countersurveillance and public-safety capabilities by increasing the number of cameras available for authorities to monitor.

For example, the mayor said the Metropolitan Police Department currently monitors 92 surveillance cameras in high-crime neighborhoods. The number of cameras available for the department’s use in those neighborhoods will increase to 225 under the initiative, although Mr. Fenty said police and other agencies also will have access to 1,388 outside cameras and 3,874 cameras inside buildings throughout the city.

Nearly 3,500 of the cameras are operated by D.C. Public Schools. The city’s transportation department operates 131 of the devices, which are normally trained on streets but can swivel.

“It is important to note, however, that there are many more cameras that are not in high-crime areas that MPD can also use in either the prevention or fighting of crime,” Mr. Fenty said.

Surveillance camera networks have been used throughout the country and around the world by advocates who say the devices are effective tools for crime prevention.

Chicago, widely seen as the U.S. city that has made the most aggressive use of surveillance technology, has installed more than 2,000 cameras and began linking the devices into a single network in 2004. The camera network in London, referred to as the “Ring of Steel,” is thought to be the most extensive in the world, employing about 500,000 cameras.

In the District, police Chief Cathy L. Lanier testified before the D.C. Council last week that her department’s cameras have caused a 19 percent reduction in violent crime within 250 feet of the devices and a 4 percent violent crime reduction within 1,000 feet.

But camera opponents counter that the devices are not an effective crime deterrent and can result in an intrusion on citizens’ privacy.

“When you look at [police] statistics, the first thing you noticed was that they don’t account for displacement, where you put a camera up on one street and the drug dealer goes to the next street,” said Melissa Ngo, senior counsel and director of the Identification and Surveillance Project at the District-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. “That is not cutting down on crime so much as moving it.”

Mr. Fenty and Mr. Darnell said the District’s program will take an “all-hazards” approach and be used not only for public safety but emergency and traffic safety needs as well. The District is spending an estimated $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 also hope to receive some federal funding for the program and plan to begin consolidating camera functions for four agencies by May 1. A second phase of the program — which officials expect to be fully implemented by year’s end — will integrate remaining agencies into a central facility.

When the District first implemented its network of surveillance cameras through emergency legislation in 2006, officials said the devices would be passively monitored by police and required that the police chief provide public notice before the cameras are permanently installed, with some exceptions.

Chief Lanier last year allowed officers to actively monitor the cameras. Officials said the new consolidated network will adhere to existing rules until more comprehensive regulations can be developed.

Mr. Mendelson, who questioned Mr. Darnell about the program at an oversight hearing yesterday, was skeptical that the council’s previous camera regulations would be followed.

“We’re going to go from a system where the council is legislating that the system would be passively monitored to a system where 5,000 cameras can be actively monitored by any one of the … agencies,” he said.


D.C. officials yesterday said they plan to link more than 5,000 cameras to form a surveillance network to help combat crime and terrorism. The following city agencies have cameras:

D.C. Housing Authority: 720

D.C. Public Schools: 3,452

Department of Parks and Recreation: 181

Department of Transportation: 131

Metropolitan Police Department: 92

Department of Corrections: 218

Office of Property Management/Protective Services Division: 468

D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency: 4

TOTAL: 5,266

Source: D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency


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