Police Go Live Monitoring D.C. Crime Cameras

Chief's Initiative Aimed At Faster Response Time

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008; Page A01

D.C. police are now watching live images from dozens of surveillance cameras posted in high-crime parts of the city, hoping to respond faster to shootings, robberies and other offenses and catch suspects before they get away.

Since August 2006, the city has installed 73 cameras across the city, mostly on utility poles, at a cost of about $4 million. But until recently, officers were using them mainly as an investigative tool -- checking the recordings after crimes were committed in hopes of turning up leads and evidence.

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she thought the department wasn't making the most of the technology and was missing opportunities to more quickly solve crimes -- or even stop them in progress. "I thought, 'Why the heck aren't we watching them?' " Lanier said.

And so, for about 40 hours a week, a small team of officers in the department's Joint Operations Command Center watches the live feeds from 10 to 15 of the cameras. They choose locations based on the latest crime trends -- focusing, for example, on areas in Southeast Washington beset by gun violence.

The District is following cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, where police have actively monitored live camera scenes for years. London is often credited with having the most extensive network -- 500,000 cameras that make up the "Ring of Steel," dating to the early 1990s. "I'd love to have the whole city wired like London," said Lanier, adding that she didn't anticipate that becoming a reality.

The District's cameras have quite a range, officials said. Officers can rotate angles for different views. They can zoom in on faces of potential suspects and pick up license plate numbers from cars several blocks away. Officers monitor 911 calls while watching the cameras, and they can switch feeds if they learn of a crime being reported at one of the sites under surveillance.

Police have directed one arrest from the command center, a drug deal they spotted at a Northwest Washington gas station a few weeks ago. Officers called in vice units that surprised the suspect.

Lanier said the initiative is a pilot project that began without any fanfare in mid-November. The D.C. Council is expected to learn details of the new use of the cameras in a report due Friday. Members will probably assess the effectiveness of the live monitoring and weigh concerns about balancing public safety and privacy.

The city first turned to cameras nearly a decade ago, creating a downtown network to aid police in monitoring large demonstrations, inaugurations and other big events. At the time, civil liberties groups and some council members raised concerns about privacy rights.

Over the years, residents in many parts of the city pushed to get cameras for crime-fighting purposes, and that led to the program's expansion into neighborhoods in 2006. Police hope to add about 50 cameras in the next two years and make other upgrades, at an estimated cost of $4.5 million. Of the 73 cameras in neighborhoods, police can get live feeds from 54, officials said. Eventually, they plan to have the capability to get live images from all of the cameras.

The cameras are in public places, clearly marked with the D.C. police logo. But Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he remains concerned about privacy. Spitzer said police will be observing more average, law-abiding people who are unaware they are being watched.

Spitzer said there is also a danger of officers "zooming in on attractive women or engaging in idle curiosity."

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