I am quoted in a DC Examiner story about Mayor Fenty’s plan for a city-wide surveillance system, “New rules proposed for spy net.”
The Fenty administration has proposed new standards for a consolidated spy network of more than 5,000 closed-circuit cameras that should take effect in time for the presidential inauguration in January.
The Video Interoperability for Public Safety system, or VIPS, links 5,200 District-owned closed-circuit television cameras within a single monitoring office under the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. The goal: Assist Homeland Security “to rapidly identify and respond to emergency circumstances that occur within the District.”
Every camera in a school, in a jail cell, in a government building, outside a public housing project or attached to a traffic light has been integrated into the network. The police department’s crime cameras, which require passive monitoring only, are not included.
As I told the reporter, there are numerous problems with the proposed regulations (pdf) for the city-wide camera surveillance system. The proposed regulations have few changes from the emergency rules that were self-imposed by the Fenty administration in June. Those emergency rules were created without input from the public or the DC Council. After five months and much public and Council review and criticism of the emergency rules, the Fenty administration has not addressed the substantial privacy and civil liberty questions that have been raised.
The emergency regulations (pdf) set out in June were vague as to the purposes of the system, as are these current proposed rules. But notice that in June, the Fenty administration said that one purpose was to “enhance public safety.” The Fenty administration was questioned as to what measurements would be used to evaluate whether the centralized surveillance system could be judged effective at enhancing public safety. The “enhance public safety” purpose is gone from the new proposed rules. Why? Is it because numerous studies (pdf) by law enforcement officials have shown (pdf) that camera surveillance systems do not have a significant effect on crime, and the Fenty administration knew it couldn’t actually prove the massive camera system would actually enhance public safety?
This is especially important because of the MPD’s failure to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of the current camera surveillance system. The MPD’s own annual report (pdf) on its camera surveillance system said that violent crime in areas within 250 feet of cameras dropped by 19 percent since last year, but also found that there has been a 1 percent increase in violent crime in the rest of the District. The MPD did not conduct any analysis as to whether the crime was simply displaced from the camera areas to other parts of the District.
Displacement effect is a significant problem, as shown by a recent study (pdf) on San Francisco cameras. That study found that San Francisco’s 68 anti-crime cameras have not affected assaults, sex offenses, or robberies. The only effect that the cameras had on homicides was to move the murders less than 500 feet away, displacing the crimes.
The “enhance public safety” purpose has been replaced with “to coordinate overall safety and provide increased situational awareness.” That doesn’t mean “cut down on violent crime.” Mayor Fenty is proposing to spend millions on this massive surveillance system that won’t be used to cut down on violent crime. The mayor has recently cut funding for a number of city programs, including funding for the Metro Police Department. How can he justify slashing the police department’s budget while pumping money into this city-wide surveillance camera system?
Also, the Fenty administration doesn’t propose to give the Council or the public much information to evaluate this program. The administration proposes to give the Council an annual report about the system. But this report won’t include even statistical information on the number of cameras secretly deployed via court order or as part of an on-going criminal investigation. The public should have these statistics so DC residents can know how often the city is secretly putting up cameras and whether the cameras are actually being used for criminal investigation. The public should also know the exact numbers on whether camera surveillance footage leads to convictions of criminals. And the public should get statistics on how many and in what way operators or officers are disciplined for misuse or abuse of the system or any breach of the regulations.
Neither the mayor nor HSEMA has clearly explained how a centralized network of thousands of cameras throughout the District is a cost effective and appropriate strategy to serve law enforcement purposes. District residents deserve to know if this program would in fact improve their safety.