The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Montgomery County to offer rebates for private security cameras

The council voted on legislation that would allow residents and businesses to apply for rebates for cameras

A doorbell device with a built-in camera, a type of device that can be reimbursed by the Montgomery County Council if you live in a designated district identified by the police chief. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Montgomery County Council passed a bill this week aimed at warding off crime by incentivizing residents and businesses in certain areas to buy personal surveillance cameras.

The program allows residents, business owners or non-profits to apply for a rebate or voucher to cover the cost of a camera on their property.

“As an opt-in program, the private security camera incentive program will empower community efforts to address crimes happening in their own neighborhoods,” Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2) said in a statement earlier this week announcing the program along with council member Sidney Katz (D-District 3).

Community members and businesses must have property in a “priority area” to qualify for the rebate, which the bill defines as police districts identified by the police chief as “needing additional security cameras based upon public safety indicators, including crime levels,” according to a council staff report.

Such programs aren’t new. The District created a rebate program in 2016 to offset crime, resulting in a network of more than 1,000 private cameras. But the bill in Montgomery County didn’t pass without some debate over privacy and racial disparities in over-policing.

‘We want coverage across the city’: D.C. mayor touts network of private cameras

Based on recommendations from the Montgomery County NAACP, the council amended the bill to prevent purchased cameras being “used deliberately” to record others’ private property. The bill also requires businesses prominently display notices that will alert visitors of the cameras, according to the council report.

They also voted to approve an amendment requiring the police chief to disclose regulations of the program, including the “methodology used to identify a priority area,” the “permissible collection, dissemination, use, and disposal of images recorded by a security camera purchased under the program,” and “minimum standards for security cameras purchased under the program.”

A racial equity and social justice impact statement submitted by the Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO), noted in the council report, found that the bill could “widen racial and social disparities in policing as it broadens the Montgomery County Police Department’s authority to increase police surveillance in communities of color through private security cameras.”

The OLO recommended that the council gather diverse community input and require Montgomery County police to partner with the community to evaluate all new policing technologies through a racial equity and social justice lens, according to the council report.

The Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce also submitted a letter to the council supporting the bill but raising concerns about the funding provided to support working surveillance systems and installation costs.

“We would like to support this measure, but the fact that the program is proposed ‘subject to appropriation,’ concerns us,” the letter said. “We fear that it raises unrealistic expectations among businesses and residents for rebates that cannot be funded.”

Reimbursements have been limited to the costs of the camera, according to the council report.

D.C. offers rebates for installing surveillance cameras to deter crime

Some opponents of the bill argue that investment should go to other needed crime prevention resources in the county.

“It’ll capture the crime, but it’s not preventing the crime,” Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, Montgomery County community member and co-founder of “Racial Justice NOW!,” said in an interview. “Folks are saying, ‘Oh, there’s an increase in crime.’ Okay, well, where are the resources to ensure that these young people have access to those things that will keep them out of trouble?”

“That’s what we’ve been asking for, not security cameras,” she added.

Rice said in a memo sent to the Public Safety Committee that the bill’s purpose is to support “our most vulnerable residents” and community policing. The program will not require video to be shared with police, unless under a lawful warrant, or posted on social media, Rice said.

“This program does not provide direct, real-time access by police to video,” Rice said in the memo. “These cameras will be owned by private individuals and/or businesses from whom police may request access to footage.”

The police chief will also be required to provide a yearly report to the council about the implementation of the program, according to the council report.

Program details will be found on the Montgomery County Police department website, according to the news release.