By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008
The D.C. government plans to begin centralized monitoring of about 5,000 security cameras it maintains throughout the city, giving emergency-management officials a broad look into schools, public housing and other sites.
The city says the system will save money and provide 24-hour monitoring, rather than the sporadic attention in the current patchwork of camera systems. But civil liberties advocates expressed alarm.
"Having it all together in one place brings us one step closer to the kind of scary movie scenario where they can track somebody moving across the city," said Art Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union for the Washington area.
D.C. police will continue to watch their 73 surveillance cameras in high-crime neighborhoods, Darrell Darnell, head of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said yesterday. But his agency will set up a center to monitor an array of other closed-circuit TV cameras, including nearly 3,500 inside D.C. public schools, 131 used by the Department of Transportation and 720 used by the D.C. Housing Authority.
City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said yesterday that the concept of the single network was developed in meetings in which officials determined that the city could save money through consolidation.
Not including the police department, the city is spending an estimated $1.7 million to operate and monitor its cameras this year, but that could be cut in half beginning next year, city officials said. Also, more efficient monitoring of the cameras could lead to additional savings through such steps as removing security guards from locations that are monitored by camera, Tangherlini said.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said in a statement that the new system "will provide decision-makers with a more efficient and effective source of video information, both for day-to-day monitoring as well as during emergencies."
Darnell's office, which houses a 24-hour emergency facility, will host the camera-monitoring center. The new Video Interoperability for Public Safety program will cost nearly $10 million to set up, with federal grants expected to pay about $9 million, he said.
The growing use of security cameras across the country has drawn criticism, with residents fearing violations of their privacy. Such cities as Baltimore, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia do live monitoring.
The District began active monitoring of police cameras last year, after using them mainly as an investigative tool after crimes. The establishment of the broader network of cameras was first reported by the Washington Times.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, called the project "a very radical change."
"You're talking about a very large scale," he said. "To have police, or any government persons, looking at those cameras, is a waste of money."
Darnell said the new system is not a dangerous expansion of monitoring.
"These cameras are there. So they're already in use. We're just not making the best use of them," he said.
If personnel watching the cameras spot any sign of a crime, they will alert police, Darnell said. But before D.C. police start to work at the monitoring facility, "we really need to come up with a District-wide policy, to make sure we don't violate any civil liberties and don't co-mingle monitoring functions with police surveillance."
Ultimately, Darnell said, the system would use technology to better combat crime. For example, a 911 call about an incident could trigger the monitoring facility to send a video feed to a police officer's car near the site.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier released a report this year that said that violent crime had declined 19 percent around the city's police surveillance cameras.
Mendelson questioned such figures, however, saying criminals could merely move their areas of operations.
"It's clear looking at other cities that cameras displace crime, they don't reduce crime," he said.
The emergency-management office will launch the first phase of the project May 1, centralizing the monitoring of cameras from the public schools, the housing authority, the Office of Property Management and the Department of Transportation. Other cameras will be incorporated later.
Mendelson said he remains concerned about abuse of the system. "We don't want the camera swooping in on a cute girl in a short skirt," he said.
Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.