BACK IN 2002, when the District police first set up video surveillance cameras on the Mall, Congress, the D.C. Council, civil liberties groups and others raised questions. In response, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey agreed that "policies and procedures governing our use of video were not as specific and formalized as they should be," and the D.C. Council quickly approved a set of regulations governing use of the cameras. Among other things, these rules required the police department to "provide updates on the CCTV system at community meetings." They also required the police department's Office of Professional Responsibility to "conduct periodic audits, at least quarterly" to ensure that the regulations were being followed, and to provide these audits to the mayor and the council.
Fast-forward three years: After the extraordinarily effective use of video cameras following bombings on the London transit system, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) called last week for an expansion of the District's system. He wants more cameras in parks, neighborhoods and commercial districts as well as the Mall, and greater use of existing cameras. Both he and Chief Ramsey agreed that this expansion must be carried out under the council's rules. Unfortunately, neither has done a very good job of following the rules so far, and the negligence appears to be mutual. While the police department says it has written regular audits, no one ever bothered to provide them to the mayor or the council. The mayor and the council, in turn, never asked for them. There is no evidence that any community meetings were ever held.
There are good arguments in favor of security cameras. They can be very effective against both crime and terrorism, as the London police have proven recently. In practice, they do nothing that a police officer couldn't do, except that they do it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Nevertheless, because they make records of what goes on in public spaces, they create legitimate civil liberties concerns. Who is doing the watching? What do they do with the tapes? There must be political and community control over the cameras to make sure they are not abused. If no one is watching the watchers -- and it appears, in the District at least, that no one is -- then they should not be used at all.
One way forward is to pick up on an idea the mayor mentioned last week. In some countries, including Australia, community groups have become involved in monitoring and controlling security cameras. Before setting up any further video surveillance, the mayor, the D.C. Council and the police should investigate how this is done elsewhere and consider establishing similar practices. The current system clearly isn't working; hurriedly rushing three years' worth of audits over to the politicians won't make up for three years of negligence by the police, the mayor and the council.