Cameras to monitor wide areas of D.C.
By Jim Keary and Brian DeBose
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
February 14, 2002
The Metropolitan Police Department is seeking to monitor activities at city schools, on the subway, at power plants and near water supplies by creating a vast network of surveillance cameras to watch large numbers of D.C. residents.
The department would link hundreds of cameras already in use by various agencies with the dozen that police have operated near federal buildings and monuments around the Mall since September 11.
" We don't have enough officers to watch everything, " said Steve Gaffigan, the police department's senior executive director of quality assurance who heads the camera project. " This allows us to monitor more places and frees up officers to do their work in the neighborhoods. "
The cameras, which are not necessarily operated 24 hours a day, monitor wide areas of the Mall, Mr. Gaffigan said, and operators zoom in only when they see something suspicious. " We don't zoom in on someone holding hands on Pennsylvania Avenue, " he said. " The way we are using it does not violate anyone's rights. "
But a report in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about the department's plans prompted civil liberties groups to raise concerns that the vast surveillance was an invasion of privacy and a Big Brother-like encroachment on personal freedoms.
" The movie 'Enemy of the State' is the closest representation of where we are going with this technology, " said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to a film in which a lawyer is hounded by rogue government agents through a web of surveillance devices.
Johnny Barnes, executive director of the ACLU for the National Capital Area, said his organization has delivered a letter to the D.C. Council demanding public hearings before the police department's expansion of its surveillance network begins.
The Law Enforcement Alliance of America yesterday joined the ACLU in criticizing the expanded use of the surveillance cameras.
" The notion of putting cameras all over [the District] in a combination of public and private areas is a serious problem, " said Kevin Watson, spokesman of the law enforcement group.
The police department on Tuesday opened its Joint Operation Command Center, where 50 local and federal officials could monitor surveillance cameras on large video screens on a wall. Officials opened the command center at police headquarters after the FBI issued an alert about a potential terrorist attack.
The command center is the heart of the $7 million Synchonized Operations Command Complex, which is activated during special events, such as an inauguration, or when the region is put on high alert.
The center's cameras can provide a panoramic view of the U.S. Capitol or take a picture of someone sitting on the Capitol steps. Cameras also can zoom in on the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Mr. Gaffigan said expanding the camera network to include schools, the subway and highways would pose no problems. The department has linked its system to cameras in D.C. public schools on a trial basis.
" We could use it in the event of another Columbine [High School massacre]. We could use the cameras to see inside the building before we sent in officers, " said Mr. Gaffigan. " It could save lives. "
Police officials are talking with Metro officials about linking the subway system's cameras to the police network when Metro upgrades its surveillance. Subway station cameras currently are linked only to monitors at station kiosks, but Metro is centralizing its system.
Mr. Gaffigan said police intend to install cameras at power plants and water supplies.
Mr. Watson, the spokesman for the Law Enforcement Alliance, said the biggest concern for his organization is how much the cameras will damage an already fragile relationship between law enforcement and communities around the nation. He said the idea that the country would model a law-enforcement practice after England is disturbing.
More than 2 million police surveillance cameras are placed throughout England. The ACLU's Mr. Steinhardt said that country's program proves " that the camera surveillance has no effect on reducing or solving crimes and it will be abused. "
" England has no Bill of Rights [or] freedom of the press, and they are not the free society we live in, " Mr. Watson said.
Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said the community must want surveillance before the police department can begin installing neighborhood cameras. " Before we put these into an area where there is an open-air drug market, we would need some input from the community, " said Chief Gainer, the department's No. 2 official. " We shouldn't be looking because we can, but that we should. "
A surveillance camera installed in Georgetown, atop a building on M Street at Wisconsin Avenue NW, has been purchased by a business association and is monitored only during special events, Mr. Gaffigan said.
" Terrorism is a pretext ... monitoring Georgetown is not something we do to fight terrorism, " the ACLU's Mr. Steinhardt said.
Metropolitan Police first used a surveillance camera linked to police headquarters on New Year's Eve 1999 amid concerns about terrorist attacks, Mr. Gaffigan said. The department used cameras more extensively during protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund two years ago and during President Bush's inauguration.