Letter to DC City Council on Camera Surveillance System from ACLU of the National Capital Area

Letter From the ACLU of the National Capital Area to the DC City Council Calling For A Hearing On Police Surveillance Camera Scheme


13 February, 2002

Kathleen Patterson, Chairperson
Committee on the Judiciary
Council of the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C.

Re: Surveillance Cameras
By Hand

Dear Chairperson Patterson:

Today's Wall Street Journal has an extensive article about the use and planned expanded use of surveillance cameras in the District of Columbia. A Copy is enclosed.

The article reports that Washington's system, operated from a command post at MPD headquarters, "will soon be one of the nation's most extensive public surveillance networks." Hundreds of cameras are to be networked to monitor streets, shopping areas, and neighborhoods, as well as public buildings and schools. We are told that "the plans for Washington go far beyond what is in use in other American cities." For now, the police department reportedly has not decided whether or not to install the technology employing biometrics to identify persons, such as was used at the Super Bowl. The possible use of this very imperfect technology raises a host of additional questions.

Arguably, the threat of terrorism is greater in Washington, D.C. than elsewhere. But by living and working in the nation's capital, citizens do not abandon their right to privacy. Clearly a balance must be struck so that we can be safe and free.

According to the MPD manager of this surveillance project, as reported by the WSJ, people in Great Britain have adapted well to the extensive use of surveillance cameras. A report in the New York Times Magazine of October 7, 2001 (enclosed) found that the matter was not so simple. The massive use of cameras has negatively changed people's behavior; the camera becomes an instrument to enforce social conformity. The fear of being spied upon by Big Brother has a real cost to an open society such as ours. The experience of other jurisdictions too suggests that the utility of these surveillance systems is at best dubious.  Several cities have tried and abandoned surveillance cameras, considering them to be ineffective and intrusive.  Beginning in 1997, over a twenty-two month period, cameras were placed in Times Square, resulting in only ten arrests, before they were dismantled.  Not one terrorist was among those arrested.  The use of surveillance cameras was also abandoned in Miami Beach, Newark, White Plains, Mount Vernon and other cities.  

The continuation and, certainly any expansion, of this system should be subject to public comment to ensure that privacy rights are not further impaired. While the police spy camera program has already been developed by MPD well beyond anything the public might have suspected, this new plan to institute Big Brother surveillance is a bad idea that should be rejected outright. We hope that the Council will agree. In any case, there is a clear failure to set up even the kind of protection in civil and criminal law for abuses of wiretapping laws. The privacy of law-abiding Americans is not protected under this scheme. Law enforcement institutions are human institutions, run by human beings, subject to all the glories and frailties of being human. Both around the country and in Washington, D.C. itself, we have had examples of both incredible bravery and truly astonishing misconduct.

Not so long ago, for example, a top-ranking MPD police official (and the apartment-mate of the then MPD chief) was guilty of using MPD databases on license plates to track down and attempt to blackmail men visiting gay clubs. Imagine what he could have done with a citywide spy-camera system. In it's history, the FBI has engaged in improper spying on civil rights activists and Vietnam demonstrators. The National ACLU has just issued a report on the FBI's spying on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Imagine what government agents could do if they had a citywide spy-camera system that, as some suggest, is digitized so that the digital images of someone could be tracked from one site to another.

That is why we must consider carefully before putting new powers in the hands of the police, scrutinizing each new power to determine, in the words of ACLU National Executive Director Anthony Romero, (a) whether the new proposal is necessary, will it in fact increase our security and (b) whether it is defensible, will the increased benefit to security outweigh the cost to constitutional guarantees and, even more, public expectations of procedural fairness, free speech and privacy. The ACLU-NCA strongly believes that the MPD spy-camera scheme fails these tests. Subjecting the city to spy-cameras will radically change the nature of public space and public activities in the Nation's Capital. 

Accordingly, Madam Chairperson, we call upon you to convene a public hearing at the earliest possible opportunity so that the Police Department and others participating in the surveillance camera program can publicly explain the program. We are not aware of any proposed regulations to govern this program -none has been published in the D.C. Register- and urge the Council to require that they be drafted without further delay for public review. Informal, ad hoc procedures cannot adequately protect important privacy rights.

Thank you for your consideration.


Johnny Barnes
Executive Director

Cc: Members of the Council
 Mayor Anthony Williams
 Chief of Police Charles Ramsey

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