“Our goal is deterrence,” said Diane Colasanto, the civic group’s public safety chair, adding that the idea came from the tavern camera. “Even though we don’t have a lot of serious crime, we do have crime. We want to make it just that much more difficult for people to break into cars, and to break into houses, and to take cellphones out of people’s hands.”
Police surveillance cameras are ubiquitous in many big cities across the country, but the unusual move by a community association to record people’s comings and goings is evoking fears of neighbor spying on neighbor.
Although there is no expectation of privacy in public space, the civic group’s initiative adds another dimension to the debate over increased surveillance by the government and others.
The civic group says that it is taking privacy concerns seriously and that its strict guidelines ensure the cameras won’t intrude on residents’ personal lives. Cameras will be mounted on private property and video can be accessed and turned over to authorities only after a crime has been reported to police.
But even people comfortable with law enforcement watching the citizenry may be wary that a block captain could play video voyeur with the habits of neighbors.
Georgetown resident Jennifer Fiore objected on an Internet bulletin board moderated by D.C. police, wondering how the Citizens Association of Georgetown had the authority to install cameras — generally in residential areas east and west of Wisconsin Avenue — which she said should be the responsibility of police.
“We are not, after all, a private, gated community with the CAG as the governing board,” Fiore wrote. In an interview, she said she was concerned “about the amount of information that is public about people. I just like having privacy. I have an expectation that I will blend in, that unless there’s something wrong, nobody will be watching me.”
Arthur Spitzer, the legal director of the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said there’s nothing illegal about what the civic group is doing. In fact, he said, it has more leeway than the police, who have to worry about constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure.
But he warned of the temptation to use the videos to keep tabs on city work crews, go after residents who put their trash out too early, or intercede in petty neighborhood squabbles and civil claims.
“Once the video is there, it’s hard to control how it’s used and who gets it,” Spitzer said.
“We don’t like the whole idea we’re turning into a surveilled society.” But, he said, “Most people seem quite willing to trade a feeling of freedom for a feeling of security.”