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Council Questions Camera Plan

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

D.C. Council members grilled a top city official on a controversial plan to build a network out of thousands of government-owned video cameras, on the eve of a vote today that could place restrictions on the system.

The project, launched a month ago, aims to centralize the monitoring of more than 5,000 closed-circuit cameras that belong to 10 D.C. agencies, located in schools, public housing, motor-vehicle offices and other sites. Officials say it will save money and improve emergency response. But privacy advocates and council members protested, saying the system had been developed in secrecy and risked creating a Big Brother society.

"This was put together hastily, without adequate thought or due consideration for the byproduct effects that will inevitably follow," council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) told City Administrator Dan Tangherlini.

The council is set to vote today on a measure that would require the city to draw up regulations for the new system to safeguard citizens' privacy rights. Until such regulations are approved, the legislation would require the system to follow the detailed guidelines that govern the 92 D.C. police surveillance cameras.

Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who chaired yesterday's hearing of the council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said he was considering even tougher restrictions. He said he might propose language today to make the city "start over and have the answers" about the new system before developing it.

"I'm a little mystified with what this program is about," he said.

Tangherlini said authorities are working on a policy to protect privacy rights, which is scheduled for completion before September. The policy was not developed in advance, because officials are still trying to determine exactly which agencies will belong to the network, how they will work together and how they will share information, he said.

Authorities want to "make sure we have a coherent, unified set of policies based on actual use of the cameras," he said. Currently, four agencies' cameras have been brought under one roof at the city's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, with others to follow.

Yesterday's hearing reflected the confusion that has reigned over the new program -- dubbed VIPS, or the Video Interoperability for Public Safety -- since it was announced at an April news conference. A news release then said the project would provide "additional public safety support."

But yesterday, Mendelson released a letter from Darrell Darnell, head of the city's homeland security agency, saying that the new system "was not created as a law enforcement tool." Instead, it was aimed at more efficient monitoring of cameras, the letter said.

The role D.C. police will play in the system is also unclear. Darnell said last month that there would be no D.C. police personnel in the central monitoring facility. But Tangherlini said officials were still exploring how police might access the video captured in the monitoring facility.

The funding for the project appears to be in flux as well. Darnell said last month that the city expects to build the system mainly with two federal grants totaling about $9 million. But Tangherlini said yesterday that authorities have applied for one grant worth about $5 million and are unsure what they might eventually receive under a second grant.

Tangherlini said the new project was aimed at bringing efficiency and common policies to more than 5,000 city cameras that operate under a variety of regulations -- and in some cases, no regulations.

Cameras have been sprouting around the city "with kudzulike growth," but with a "lack of regulations, a lack of management, a lack of oversight," he said.

He said new regulations would limit the amount of time that video images can be retained and provide greater security. Privacy advocates have pointed to instances in which surveillance images from public housing projects and other places have found their way to the Internet.

Despite such concerns, surveillance cameras have proved popular with the public. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) noted at the hearing that there is not a public meeting she attends where citizens "don't tell us how cameras have positively affected security in their neighborhoods."

Still, the council recently cut funds from the 2009 budget that would have transferred employees to the centralized monitoring center at the city's homeland security agency.

Tangherlini said that move would not stop the VIPS program but could result in less monitoring and the transfer of funds from other worthy programs.

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