The D.C. Council yesterday lambasted the city police department's system of surveillance cameras, with several members saying vehemently that they did not want the technology -- now an entrenched part of D.C. police operations -- to be used at all.
The sudden and impassioned objections, with several council members talking about the Orwellian potential of the cameras, could have serious consequences. After months of hearings and debate about the cameras -- which were installed without notice to Congress or the council -- yesterday was the first sign that legislators might consider killing the surveillance program altogether.
The council's concerns were aired in a debate over municipal regulations that would limit the use of the cameras to certain places and situations. The council initially voted to reject the regulations by a 7 to 6 vote but then reconsidered. Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8) changed her vote to yes, allowing the measure to pass by one vote, but she made it clear that she was hardly endorsing the surveillance network.
Allen explained her switch by saying that if no regulations were passed, police would be free to do whatever they wanted -- including video surveillance in poor neighborhoods. Several other members said they were concerned that approving any regulations might be construed as an implicit approval of the cameras in general.
"At first, I thought Washington, because it's prone to more terrorist attacks, would be a place where visitors would want cameras," Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said. "But I agree now with my colleagues who say Washington should be a beacon of freedom."
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) expressed a similar view, declaring: "These cameras have been set up to deal with demonstrations and dissent. This will have a chilling effect and discourage citizens from demonstrating openly here in the capital of the United States of America."
Graham's remarks drew an ovation from interns and staff members of the American Civil Liberties Union, who were reprimanded for the outburst by council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D). Later, council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) urged her colleagues to draft and submit a bill to kill the camera program outright, so that the issue could be debated explicitly. Patterson added that she would also like "the public's perspective."
Fourteen D.C. police cameras are stationed across the city, with most positioned in the downtown area and Dupont Circle. They feed images into a high-tech operations center, a mission control-like room at police headquarters, but they also can transmit to the department's mobile command bus, and hand-held computers given to police brass.
The camera network was first used on Sept. 11, 2001, but was not publicly discussed until it was described in news accounts early this year. Then, after criticism and expressions of concern from Congress and the D.C. Council, police officials promised to prepare a set of guidelines to ensure privacy rights would not be abused.
Those guidelines were tightened after council hearings that highlighted additional worries from the ACLU and others about how the cameras would be used. In the final draft considered by the council yesterday, police were not allowed to put up cameras to look for street crime and instead were limited to using the cameras to monitor traffic, large demonstrations and city emergencies.
Police say that they already comply with the limits and that the cameras have been used appropriately.
In recent months, the cameras 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 sniper attacks.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey -- speaking before the regulations came to a vote -- said yesterday that he believes cameras deter crime but that police had no plans to use cameras as they are used in Great Britain, where public places are heavily surveilled.
"I'm not proposing that," Ramsey said yesterday. "I think you use what you need."
The U.S. Park Police also revealed plans this year for a system of cameras around the Mall. Sgt. Scott Fear, a Park Police spokesman, said yesterday that the cameras were up and were being tested but that plans for their use were still being developed.
The regulations for D.C. police that were considered yesterday will be among the strictest in the country, experts said. One recent survey found that 47 percent of large law enforcement agencies used fixed surveillance cameras like those in the District.