The future is bearing down on Washington, DC. In recent weeks the District’s police have begun constructing a centrally monitored, citywide closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance system–the first of its kind in the nation. Eventually, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) plans to link 1,000 cameras to watch streets, public schools, the DC Metro transit system, federal facilities and even part of a Georgetown business improvement district. The nucleus of this system, made up of thirteen $15,000-apiece cameras, is already in place, mounted high on buildings, sending live wireless feed to the MPD’s $7 million, NASA-style Joint Operations Command Center. In this room filled with video monitors, computers and communications gear, surveillance images are recorded and logged by the police, Secret Service, FBI and at times other agencies. Departmental brass say the Command Center and camera network are a response to the attacks of September 11, part of an effort to “enhance public safety” by fighting terrorism and crime. And they claim widespread public support for the project: Recent opinion polls show 60-80 percent approval ratings for increased surveillance of streets and public space.
“We’ve started with important federal locations, but we’ve already had numerous requests from nearby neighborhoods. People are like, ‘Hey, we’ve got crime; we need some cameras over here,'” says Kevin Morison, communications director for the MPD. He predicts that “community extensions” will be the next phase of the surveillance system.
Once the full camera network is operative, police will be able to read license plates and track cars as they move through the city, zoom in on individuals, read newsprint from hundreds of feet away and send real-time images to the laptops of the department’s 1,000 patrol cars. According to local press reports, engineers are even working to equip some of the cameras with night vision. They could also be outfitted with biometric facial-recognition software for comparing faces on the street against mug shots in the department’s database. But so far, the police say they won’t use biometrics, in part because facial recognition is still a very imperfect technology.
In preparation for the big linkup, both the school system and the Metro are retooling and are connecting their surveillance systems. The school system started installing cameras at middle and high schools after the Columbine killings in 1999. The Metro has used cameras since the tunnels opened in the late 1970s, but the new Metro surveillance gear will include recorders and be linked by fiber optics into a centralized control station. Eventually the whole system will be connected to the Joint Operations Command Center. “It makes sense,” explains Polly Hanson, deputy chief of the DC Metro Police. “When there are emergencies or demonstrations, we coordinate with the MPD anyway. This technical upgrade and connection seemed like a natural fit.” Since September 11 the Metro has received $49 million in federal anti-terrorist funding and has overhauled surveillance in fourteen key stations; completing the whole job will take several years.
As soon as news of the emerging DC surveillance network broke in late February, civil libertarians began raising questions. Particularly problematic in the eyes of many is the fact that the system was created without any written guidelines or community consultation. The outcry has forced DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey to promise a set of written parameters for the camera system’s operation. But details of the surveillance plans remain a mystery.
“We still have a lot of unanswered questions,” says Johnny Barnes, executive director of the Washington American Civil Liberties Union. Despite meetings with the police brass, Barnes and the ACLU still want to know: Who will monitor the video? When will the system be complete? How long will the tapes be kept and by whom? What agencies will get access to the tapes? And what steps will be taken to prevent video voyeurism or racist and antihomeless profiling? Nor are the ACLU’s concerns merely hypothetical: Already, police in Detroit and DC have used CCTV to stalk personal foes, political opponents and young women.