D.C. Street Cameras Put on Fast Track

By Nikita Stewart and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The D.C. Council adopted emergency legislation yesterday to bypass a sluggish procurement process that has delayed installation of 24 surveillance cameras in high-crime neighborhoods.

During a crime emergency last year, the council approved the use of the cameras across the city, and 48 have been installed. Although the council authorized spending $1.7 million to purchase an additional 24 cameras in October, the purchase has not been made.

"Frankly, it's embarrassing," said Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). He said he wants to tell residents that "we have fulfilled a promise that we made to you months ago."

Former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) included the surveillance cameras in the city's crime-fighting strategy after a string of homicides in July. Although critics have questioned whether the cameras, which were hotly debated, have an impact on crime, the cameras are popular among some neighborhood groups.

Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) said residents are asking: "Why is the camera not here? We have asked you over and over and over."

The council voted 9 to 2 yesterday to allow the police department to bypass procurement laws to purchase cameras within 90 days after the measure is approved by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who supports the use of cameras.

D.C. police spokesman Kevin Morison said the department wants the second batch of cameras to go up as soon as possible, but the procurement process has been cumbersome. "Everyone was a little frustrated at how long it was taking," Morison said. "To go through the entire process takes a lot of steps, a lot of paperwork."

The procedure involves identifying vendors, requesting proposals, establishing an evaluation team to review offers, an assessment by the attorney general's office and a council vote on the final contract, according to the Office of Contracting and Procurement.

The council waived regular procurement procedures when it approved the first 48 cameras in July, and the cameras were in place by September. When the council approved the additional two dozen cameras in October, it did not include a waiver.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who joined council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) in voting against the emergency bill, said the council should not continue to circumvent procurement laws because the process is slow. Instead, he said, the District should try to improve the purchasing process.

Mendelson, who heads the council's public safety and judiciary committee, also said he has seen no proof that the cameras are fighting crime. "There has yet to be any solid evidence that points to these cameras being effective," he said.

He said the presence of more police officers on the street and programs to rehabilitate ex-offenders are more effective at deterring crime.

Several council members, however, argued that the cameras have improved the situation on some crime-ridden blocks and given residents a feeling of safety.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said he has seen the cameras discourage drug dealers, gamblers and others from gathering at certain hot spots. "It begins to disrupt that activity and . . . it denies them that space," he said.

"In my neighborhood, in my community, in Ward 8, they want a camera on every corner," said council member Marion Barry (D).

Sandra Seegars, a community activist and advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 8, said her Congress Heights neighborhood needs more cameras. "I want one in front of my house," she said.

She said her neighborhood is dark and needs all the tools the city can provide to fight crime. "If a person thinks they are being watched, they are not going to do as much," she said. "We need lights and cameras. Action."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company