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    Update on Camera Surveillance System in Washington, D.C.

    A few years ago, then-DC Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) unveiled plans for a city-wide surveillance system  (VIPS). At the time, the Washington Examiner reported: “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.” The Fenty administration gave the DC Council and the public little information on the project, and critics (including me) charged that it did not adequately address the substantial privacy and civil liberty questions that were raised.

    Last year, the Washington Examiner reported that DC Mayor Vincent Gray (D) sought to expand the city’s camera surveillance system to watch the public. (Note that the District of Columbia also uses license-plate readers to capture images of vehicles’s plates.)

    Now, the Washington Times reports on a public-private partnership on surveillance cameras in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood that is raising privacy and civil liberties questions:

    When D.C. police began installing surveillance cameras in neighborhoods more than five years ago as crime-fighting tools, privacy concerns voiced by civil liberties groups limited their scope and use.

    Now a less-formal agreement from a citizens association planning to expand the Metropolitan Police Department’s watchful eye in Georgetown over the next few months is hitting a similar hurdle.

    The Citizens Association of Georgetown, a private neighborhood association, plans to pay for the installation of up to 10 cameras in the hopes that the additional surveillance will deter crime. […]

    The Georgetown group’s cameras will tape public spaces such as streets and sidewalks, and video that could be used to solve a crime will be turned over to police, the group’s members said. The cameras will be located on private property, such as in residents’ yards, and as a result they will skirt the stringent rules imposed on the police department’s closed-circuit camera system. […]

    A new wave of public-private surveillance partnerships, such as the one in Georgetown, has also caught the attention of civil liberties groups who caution that the original intention of a camera system is not the only way it can end up being used.

    “Once the camera is there it’s very tempting to say ‘Let’s look at it for other reasons,’ ” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital.

    As an example, Mr. Spitzer said, a divorce lawyer might try to subpoena surveillance footage that could show evidence of a spouse’s affair by recording the person’s travels through the neighborhood. […]

    Before installing the first of what is now 83 crime cameras monitoring D.C. neighborhoods after a 2006 crime wave, the Metropolitan Police Department adopted regulations governing their use, including the dictate that signs must be posted around their locations and that residents be informed of their implementation. Rules also governed who was allowed to view feeds from the cameras, how often the recordings were deleted and the viewpoint the cameras could have.

    But no such rules are in place governing private cameras or the guarantee that citizens installing cameras will be versed in privacy issues, said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel with the D.C.-based Constitution Project. […]

    A four-year study of the Metropolitan Police Department’s own camera system also found that the citywide system was ineffective at reducing crime.

    Both the low number of cameras in the District as well as the fact they were not monitored live contributed to their ineffectiveness, the 2011 study by the Urban Institute concluded.

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