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Spotlight on Surveillance

December 2005:
D.C.’s Camera System Should Focus on Emergencies, Not Daily Life


The federal government is spending an increasing amount of money on surveillance technology and programs at the expense of other projects. EPIC's "Spotlight on Surveillance" project scrutinizes these surveillance programs. For more information, see previous Spotlights on Surveillance.

This month, Spotlight focuses upon the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s use of a Closed Circuit Television System (CCTV) for public surveillance.1 Tens of millions in federal homeland security funds have been allotted to such surveillance systems.2 The D.C. cameras are turned on only during major events and in emergency situations, but after the July bombings in London, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams called for more federal funds to expand the use of the camera surveillance system.3 Mayor Williams “also proposed adding cameras to neighborhoods, parks, recreation centers and commercial areas throughout the city.”4 Camera surveillance networks are proliferating in cities across the country, but studies show that such systems have little effect on crime.5 It is more effective to place more officers on the streets than have them watching people on monitors.6 The systems also raise privacy issues. Without tight legal controls on the use of camera surveillance systems, there are significant risks of misuse or abuse.

Current Locations of 19 Cameras
in D.C. and Virginia

1000 block of Jefferson Drive, SW
Pennsylvania Avenue & 15th Street, NW
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
700 block of 18th Street, NW
200 block of Constitution Avenue, NW
700 block of 19th Street, NW
19th Street & Dupont Circle, NW
100 block of Vermont Avenue, NW
400 block of L'Enfant Plaza, SW
1100 block of Connecticut Avenue, NW
1100 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, NW (2 cameras)
800 block of Vermont Avenue, NW
Wisconsin Avenue & M Street, NW
1000 block of 19th Street, North (Rosslyn, VA)
3600 block of M Street, NW
500 block of North Capitol Street, NW
1300 block of Wisconsin Avenue, NW
300 block of Independence Avenue, SW
Source: Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department
The Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC) has a wireless network of 19 cameras mounted on the rooftops of various buildings throughout the city at strategic vantage points such as the Smithsonian Institution Castle, Dupont Circle, Union Station, and outside the city in Arlington, Va.7 The camera system was developed by Axis Communications, a Swedish firm that has supplied multiple U.S. cities with such surveillance systems.8

The cameras feed into the MPDC’s Joint Operations Command Center located at police headquarters.9 The cameras are only turned on during major events and emergencies, which is an important limitation that many other cities do not have. Also important in protecting privacy are the city’s policies governing the use of the camera systems. They limit the time the data can be retained. Generally, video recordings will be indexed and maintained for 10 business days, after which they will be cleared or destroyed.10 If recordings contain evidence of criminal activity or an occurrence that may subject the MPDC to civil liability, they will be maintained beyond 10 business days until the final disposition of the case.11

Chicago is one city that does not limit the use of its camera surveillance system. Chicago has 2,250 cameras feeding into an operations center constantly monitored by police officers.12 It does limit the data retention: “recordings taken from the cameras are wiped clean after three days unless a crime was reported or a tape is ordered preserved as evidence in an investigation.”13 However, Chicago residents will be watched every moment of every day.

The system deployed in Baltimore is connected to the state’s existing highway monitoring cameras, and the plan is for five counties in Maryland – Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard – to connect with the city’s surveillance system.14 Baltimore’s camera system, developed by NICE Systems, is watched continuously.15 The city claims that the cameras decrease crime, but one of the monitors said that the types of crimes he has witnessed are: “Mostly people drinking beer in public, or popping pills.”16


[Click to view larger version of this graphic]

This map shows where the MPDC
initially deployed its cameras in 2002.

Adapted by EPIC from a Washington Post graphic.

Though camera surveillance systems are proliferating, studies have found that they have little effect on crime prevention. Great Britain has an extensive surveillance network: London alone has 200,000 cameras, and more than 4 million cameras have been deployed throughout the country.17 It is estimated that there is one camera for every 14 people and the average Briton is seen by 300 cameras per day.18 Yet London’s system did not stop the deadly July bombings, though it did help identify the suspects after the attack.19 Sometimes camera surveillance still fails – Washington, D.C., recently concluded a two-year serial arson probe. Despite thousands of surveillance tapes, including some from cameras planted specifically by investigators, the arsonist was never caught on tape.20 The man who set fire to 45 houses and apartments over the course of three years was identified through DNA evidence found at four of the crime scenes.21

In 2002, the British Home Office examined 22 camera surveillance systems in North America and the United Kingdom, and found that such systems had a small effect on crime prevention.22 It is more effective to place more officers on the streets and improve lighting in high-crime areas.23 Last year, a Milwaukee study found that law enforcement officials in cities such as Detroit, Mich.; Miami, Fla.; and Oakland, Calif., abandoned the use of these surveillance systems because of poor results.24 Mayor Williams’s proposal to expand the Washington D.C. camera surveillance systems would divert both money and manpower from more effective street patrols.

Camera systems also have significant privacy implications. There are risks of misuse or abuse of the system. Studies have shown that there is a serious risk of race discrimination: black males are disproportionately scrutinized when such cameras systems are used.25 Earlier this year, four security officers in Merseyside, Great Britain, were charged with voyeurism, accused of using street surveillance cameras to peer into a private home to spy on a woman.26 A police helicopter equipped with an infrared camera was deployed to monitor protestors during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, yet the officers used the camera to film a couple’s romantic activity on an apartment balcony.27


MPDC cameras are placed at strategic vantage points through the city.

Photo by Cedric Laurant, EPIC

The New York City case is an example of federal and state law enforcement officials increasingly using camera surveillance systems to track protesters, which can have a chilling effect on freedoms of speech, assembly, and association.28 In 2002, EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg testified at a D.C. City Council oversight hearing about documents EPIC obtained from D.C. government agencies under the Freedom of Information Act.29 The documents detailed several occasions in 2000, 2001, and 2002 where the MPDC specifically undertook video surveillance of individuals engaged in political demonstrations.30

In 2003, Milwaukee police officers were instructed to videotape protestors outside of President Bush’s fundraisers.31 According to police records, officers filled out a “daily protest report” for every demonstration, and some reports listed the types of vehicles driven by protesters and their license plate numbers. 32

In October 2003, the FBI sent a confidential memorandum to local law enforcement agencies across the country about surveillance of political demonstrations.33 The memorandum revealed the FBI was collecting extensive information on legal and illegal activities including the tactics, training, and organization of antiwar demonstrators.34 The memorandum was sent in advance of antiwar protests in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and advised local law enforcement officials to report any suspicious activity to its counterterrorism squads.35

A D.C. Council investigation last year found wrongdoing by police during demonstrations in 2002 and that D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and other police officials conspired to cover up evidence of such wrongdoing.36 The Council’s Judiciary Committee submitted a March 2004 report detailing numerous transgressions by D.C. police:

Though Chief Ramsey states that policies have changed, and there have not been any mass arrests of demonstrators since, the potential for chilling lawful free speech remains.38 Mayor Williams’s suggestion that the surveillance cameras should be deployed in more than current the limited circumstances would allow for much more surveillance of everyone, including peaceful demonstrators.

“The goal of the CCTV system is to enhance the safety and security of residents, workers and visitors in the District of Columbia, while vigorously respecting the privacy rights of individuals,” the MPDC says.39 Mayor Williams’s proposal to increase the number of cameras in and use of the city’s surveillance system moves Washington, D.C., away from this goal. It would be better realized if the financial resources instead were used to hire more police officers to patrol the streets for illegal activity. The D.C. camera surveillance system should continue to be used for emergencies, and not be expanded to watch daily life.

1 EPIC has been following the growth in the use of such camera systems for several years, including the Washington, D.C., surveillance network. The 2002 Observing Surveillance project includes a map of camera locations in areas of downtown Washington, D.C., at http://www.observingsurveillance.org/; see also Marc Rotenberg and Cédric Laurant, EPIC and Privacy International, Privacy and Human Rights: An International Survey of Privacy Laws and Developments at 103-104 (EPIC 2004) (hereinafter “PHR 2004”), available at http://www.privacyinternational.org/phr; EPIC’s Video Surveillance page, at http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/; and Spotlight on Surveillance for May 2005, More Cities Deploy Camera Surveillance Systems with Federal Grant Money, at http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0505/.

2 Richard Salit, Newport nets aid for bridge cameras, Providence Journal, Jan. 7, 2005; Matt Baron, Cameras to keep eye on Cicero, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 10, 2005; Frank X. Mullen Jr., UNR’s camera network raises fear, Reno Gazette-Journal, Mar. 13, 2005; Greg Barrett, 9/11 brings a windfall for state’s spending, Baltimore Sun, Mar. 20, 2005; Guy Taylor, No camera system can stop terrorists, Washington Times, July 8, 2005; Robert Tanner, Pressure on U.S. to Use More Surveillance, Associated Press, July 24, 2005.

3 Eric M. Weiss, D.C. Considering More Police Cameras, Washington Post, July 14, 2005.

4 Id.

5 Brandon C. Welsh and David P. Farrington, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, Crime prevention effects of closed circuit television: a systematic review, Research Study 252 (Aug. 2002) (hereinafter “Home Office CCTV Study”), available at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs2/hors252.pdf; National Association for the Criminal Rehabilitation of Offenders, To CCTV or not to CCTV? A review of current research into the effectiveness of CCTV systems in reducing crime (June 28, 2002) (hereinafter “NACRO CCTV Study”), available at http://www.nacro.org.uk/templates/publications/briefingItem.cfm/2002062800-csps.htm and http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0505/nacro02.pdf.

6 Home Office CCTV Study at vii; NACRO CCTV Study at 6.

7 Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s Web site, at http://mpdc.dc.gov/.

8 Jeffrey Selingo, How It Works: Online, All the Time, an All-Seeing Surveillance System, New York Times, Apr. 24, 2003.

9 Id.

10 D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 24, § 2505.5 (2005).

11 D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 24, § 2505.6 (2005).

12 Fran Spielman, Feds give city $48 million in anti-terrorism funds, Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 4, 2004.

13 Al Swanson, Analysis: Are video cameras aiding police?, United Press International, Feb. 25, 2005.

14 Doug Donovan, 24-hour camera surveillance in city is part of bigger plan, Baltimore Sun, June 10, 2004.

15 Id.

16 Stephen Janis, Blue Light Special: Life in a City Under Surveillance, Baltimore City Paper, Aug. 17, 2005.

17 Fran Spielman and Frank Main, City plans camera surveillance web, Chicago Sun-Times, Sept. 10, 2004; see generally Privacy International, Overview: CCTV and Beyond, available at http://www.privacyinternational.org/article.shtml?cmd[347]=x-347-65433.

18 Id.; Tara Burghart, Chicago Mayor Unveils Surveillance Plan, Associated Press, Sept. 10, 2004.

19 Steve Stecklow, et al, Watch on the Thames, Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2005.

20 Michael E. Ruane, Security Camera New Star Witness, Washington Post, Oct. 8, 2005.

21 Ruben Castaneda and Del Quentin Wilber, Arsonist Apologizes But Does Not Explain, Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2005.

22 Home Office CCTV Study at 45; PHR 2004 at 95-104.

23 Home Office CCTV Study at vii; NACRO CCTV Study at 6.

24 Ryan Davis, Surveillance cameras may soon be coming to a street near you, Baltimore Sun, Mar. 16, 2005.

25 NACRO CCTV Study at 4; Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong, The unforgiving Eye: CCTV surveillance in public space, Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hull University (1997).

26 Emma Gunby, Council Workers Bailed In ‘Peeping Tom’ Case, Press Association, Aug. 23, 2005.

27 Mike Dorning, U.S. cities focus on spy cameras, Chicago Tribune, Aug. 8, 2005.

[28] See EPIC’s Protestor Privacy and Free Expression Rights Page at http://www.epic.org/privacy/protest/.

29 Testimony of Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Joint Public Oversight Hearing: Committee on the Judiciary on Public Works and the Environment and the City Council of the District of Columbia (June 13, 2002), available at http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/testimony_061302.html.

30 Id.

31 Gina Barton, Police Ready to Roll Again for Bush Protests, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Oct. 3, 2003.

32 Id.

33 Eric Lichtblau, FBI Scrutinizes Anti-War Rallies, New York Times, Nov. 23, 2003.

34 Id.

35 Id.

36 District of Columbia Council, Judiciary Committee, Report on Investigation of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Policy and Practice in Handling Demonstrations in the District of Columbia at 1 (Mar. 24, 2004), available at http://www.dccouncil.washington.dc.us/patterson/kathypatterson.org/pages/prinfo/MPDReportFinal5304.doc and http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/1205/mpdrep5304.pdf.

37 Id.

38 Arthur Santana, Ramsey Defends Surveilling Protesters, Washington Post, Dec. 19, 2003; Manny Fernandez, Protest of IMF Planned This Month, Washington Post, Apr. 9, 2004.

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