Georgetown civic group looks to surveillance cameras to combat crime


A security camera mounted outside Martin's Tavern focuses on Wisconsin avenue in Georgetown, paid for by residents of N street. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)
August 31, 2012

For the past four years, a surveillance camera mounted on Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown has kept silent vigil over a single block of Wisconsin Avenue, paid for by two dozen homeowners and merchants fed up with crime.

In the next few weeks, three more cameras could be added to the neighborhood, with as many as 10 coming in the next few months, trained on residential streets and controlled by the Citizens Association of Georgetown.

“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.


A sign heralding police security cameras, on N street in Georgetown. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

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.”

Authorities in the District and surrounding jurisdictions say they aren’t aware of a comparable situation involving civic groups, although Montgomery County police say an increasing number of homeowners have cameras trained on public streets. A spokesman said that has helped detectives in recent theft cases and has helped determine the speed of a car moments before a serious crash.

A community group in Baltimore recently signed an agreement with the city to wire 16 cameras it’s buying in the Mount Vernon area directly to the police department. Officers in Baltimore continuously monitor 580 surveillance cameras and an additional 250 from public and private institutions, many transmitting live feeds.

Baltimore police said the agreement with the Mount Vernon group is its first with a civic organization. Steve Shen, who is on the Midtown District board, said his organization eventually wants to hire off-duty officers to monitor the group’s cameras exclusively.

D.C. police, who support the Georgetown initiative, are working on forming video partnerships with businesses and public institutions, but only to more quickly obtain footage taken at crime scenes, according to Cmdr. James Crane, head of the tactical information division.

Police in the District have 16 permanent and 84 mobile surveillance cameras — far fewer than other big cities. D.C. law imposes restrictions on how they’re used. Police say they rarely monitor the cameras live because conducting what is called “random monitoring” requires the presence of a supervisor. The law also doesn’t allow police to zoom in too closely on individuals.

The Urban Institute released a study last year saying that Baltimore’s highly visible camera system with live monitoring was a cost-effective crime deterrent. The study faulted the District, saying the restrictive rules mean the D.C. cameras “did not appear to have an effect on crime.”

That is one reason Edward “Chip” Dent organized his neighbors to buy the camera attached to Martin’s Tavern and why he is helping the Georgetown group get its program started. That D.C. police aren’t tied in to other surveillance systems, he said, “I find to be a distinct handicap.” He said his camera has helped police in hit-and-run accidents, vandalism, muggings and store robberies.

Colasanto said Dent’s camera sparked her group’s interest. The cameras, which each cost about $2,200, are paid for through donations. A local businessman is footing the installation costs.

Colasanto said the images will be kept for a limited time and recorded over. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, she said. “Everybody we’ve heard from so far has said, ‘How can I get this on my block?’ ”

Colasanto said protocol governing who can watch the videos and when should ease concerns.

“You can’t say, ‘Someone is messing with my flowers,’ ” Colasanto said. “It has to be something serious enough that somebody reported it to the police and they know about it. . . . We are very sensitive to the concerns of people feeling their privacy is going to be violated. We balance those concerns adequately given the dangers we face.”

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