D.C. Considering More Police Cameras

Mayor Anthony Williams says cameras are no threat to liberties, and Police Chief Charles Ramsey says they could help fight street crime and terrorism.
Mayor Anthony Williams says cameras are no threat to liberties, and Police Chief Charles Ramsey says they could help fight street crime and terrorism. (By Tetona Dunlap -- The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 14, 2005

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said yesterday that his administration will look into increasing the use of surveillance cameras in the District, as part of a study of lessons from last week's terrorist bombings in London.

The D.C. police department has 14 such cameras, most of them in the downtown area, that feed images to a high-tech operations center. Williams said he would like to see them turned on and monitored more often, and he also proposed adding cameras to neighborhoods, parks, recreation centers and commercial areas throughout the city.

"I have always been for broader use of cameras," Williams said. "I do not think that cameras are this big mortal threat to civil liberties that people are painting them out to be."

The mayor's comments reopen a debate that broke out three years ago after D.C. Council members learned about the camera system, which had been installed without their knowledge. In response to concerns from the council and some members of Congress, the police department came up with guidelines designed to ensure that privacy rights would not be abused.

Those guidelines, which the council approved, call for the cameras to be used only to monitor traffic, large demonstrations and city emergencies. The regulations also say that the cameras can be installed only in public spaces where people would have a reasonable expectation of being videotaped, and they bar police from using the devices to watch for street crime.

In an emergency, police also have access to hundreds of cameras used by Metro, the D.C. Department of Transportation, the public schools and federal agencies.

Williams made his comments during his weekly news conference when asked what steps the District is taking in response to the London bombings. Security camera footage from a London train station, which showed four men with backpacks on the morning of the bombings, has been a key piece of evidence in the investigation of that attack.

Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), one of those who pushed for the legislation that regulates the surveillance system, said she is open to expanding the use of cameras as long as it is done within the present guidelines.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he was concerned about the prospect of taking police officers off the street to stare at video monitors waiting for crime to happen. And he noted that the footage in London was used to confirm the identity of the bombers but did not prevent the bombing.

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said he supports expanding the camera program, both as an anti-terror measure and as a crime-fighting tool in neighborhoods.

"Cameras can play a vital role, and I think in terms of day-to-day crime fighting, you could see a very positive result," he said. "Again, there need to be controls that ensure people's rights are protected. But I think in public space, and with the procedures we already have in place, it would be something well worth doing and I support it 100 percent."

Some D.C. police cameras were active yesterday as part of the elevated terror alert in place since the London bombings, police spokesman Kevin Morison said.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the District-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said New York, Chicago and Baltimore are among the U.S. cities that have embraced the extensive use of surveillance cameras. Chicago has about 100 of them, Morison said.

Williams suggested that one way to protect privacy rights would be to keep the tapes in the custody of civilian groups, a policy that he said Sydney, Australia, has adopted. "That's a distinction with a difference," Williams said.

The D.C. camera network was first used on Sept. 11, 2001. Police said the cameras have aided security efforts on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, during protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and in the aftermath of the 2002 sniper attacks.

Williams also announced yesterday that city police are intensifying efforts to enlist the business community in preventing terrorism. Police have sent letters to business organizations to promote an initiative called Operation TIPP -- Terrorist Incident Prevention Program.

The program is focused on gathering intelligence from business owners and workers who may get suspicious inquiries, such as requests to purchase items that could be used in terror attacks. It began in January with the operation of a toll-free telephone number for businesses and employees to report suspicious activities: 877-YOU-WATCH.

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