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.

Other critics go even further, arguing that written regulations and police consultations with the ACLU do little more than legitimize a dangerous and unnecessary surveillance network. “Police guidelines are very frequently violated and can always be changed,” says Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a co-founder of, and attorney with, the Partnership for Civil Justice (PCJ). “Instead of signing off on this new system, we think it needs to be abolished. We believe there’s a very strong legal case for the elimination of these cameras. People have the right to traverse the streets and parks of DC without being under the scrutiny of Chief Ramsey and the FBI.”

Though one does not have a total right to privacy while walking on the street–we accept that being looked at is the price of being in public–people do have a Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. And it could be argued, by the PCJ or others, that when police watch a person with high-powered, interconnected and intelligent cameras that are linked to criminal-history databases, they are in effect conducting an unwarranted and possibly unconstitutional search. The PCJ also worries that if allowed in DC, such camera networks will proliferate across the country.

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the DC surveillance network is its past political uses. District police first hooked up their camera surveillance and high-tech Joint Ops Center in 1999 when thousands of activists protested at NATO’s fiftieth-anniversary summit. The gear was again deployed in April 2000 to monitor activists and control crowds during mass protests against the joint World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting. And the same system spied on protesters during the contested inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001.

“Americans have the right to protest with some level of anonymity, but this system and the other uses of surveillance are stripping people of that right,” says Verheyden-Hilliard. “After the inauguration we talked with numerous people who don’t normally go to demonstrations, but who went to protest Bush and the stolen election–many of them were shocked and really intimidated by the police militarism and intense surveillance.” Many protesters agree that such intensive surveillance has a politically chilling effect.

Veteran activist and videographer Mark Liiv, of Whispered Media, says excessive police surveillance is always “creepy” but that in DC it was particularly so. “At the IMF protests, everyone in the convergence center felt really sketched out. There were lots of cameras on the streets but also guys on rooftops. Some were filming, some were snipers–a bullet backing every camera,” says Liiv. “There’s definitely a performative aspect to police surveillance. If you shoot video of the cops doing surveillance they make a really big deal of getting up in your face and letting you know that you’re being filmed. If there are all these high-powered cameras on buildings, why the guys in the street, if not to psych us out and breed paranoia?”

According to material handed over in court to the Partnership for Civil Justice, the DC police even used their surveillance system to observe the superorderly, rather mainstream Million Family March in October 2000. And along with powerful cameras mounted on buildings, the DC police have equipped their helicopters with wireless surveillance video that also feeds the screens monitored at the high-tech Command Center. For a more close-up view from within the crowds of demonstrators, the MPD contracts with a private “script to screen” video firm called SRB Productions. Advertised as “100 percent minority and woman-owned,” SRB has worked for everyone from the Oprah Winfrey Show to the Navy. As a hireling of the DC police, the firm conducts surveillance of demonstrations using its commercial television equipment, according to an SRB spokesperson. It also mixed a montage video of protest highlights for Chief Ramsey’s viewing.

Neither the PCJ nor any other civil libertarians have yet filed a lawsuit demanding that the new camera network be dismantled or that the surveillance of demonstrations be halted. PCJ is still waiting on Freedom of Information Act requests, and litigation may follow. Unfortunately, PCJ’s legal argument that the DC surveillance actually constitutes an illegal search, however compelling, will probably not hold up in today’s law-and-order courts.

The DC officialdom’s interest in cameras closely parallels events from a decade ago in Britain–the nation that now has the highest CCTV density in the world. In fact, Chief Ramsey is full of praise for the cameras of Britain. But recent history from across the Atlantic can also be read as a political warning.

During the early 1990s British media were gripped by a moral panic that fixated on the double threat of crime and terrorism. When it was all over, Britain was covered with cameras. The cycle started in 1990, when the IRA resumed its “mainland campaign” with a bomb at the London Stock Exchange, followed by a mortar attack on a Cabinet meeting at No. 10 Downing Street in 1991. A bombing in April 1992 left London’s financial district with three dead, ninety-one injured and more than $1.2 billion in damages. The next year another massive “dump-truck bomb” in the same general area killed one and injured dozens. Later the IRA bombed central Manchester and launched a mortar assault on Heathrow airport.

In response, the police erected a “Ring of Steel” security cordon around central London, involving vehicle barriers, traffic bans, random armed checkpoints and hundreds of new electronic eyes in the form of CCTV.

Amid this buildup, two 10-year-old boys abducted and killed a toddler named Jamie Bulger. The kidnapping was caught on grainy surveillance film and endlessly looped on British television. All of this helped cast video surveillance as the public safety tool du jour. Now Britain has more than 2.5 million surveillance cameras; London alone is wired with 150,000.

But contrary to what the boosters say–here and in Britain–the record on CCTV is mixed. In London cameras have indeed been correlated with declining crime rates, but now crime is on the rise again despite surveillance. And no terrorists were ever caught using CCTV. Leading British criminologists have found one clear trend: CCTV does lead to racial profiling. One large study by the well-known British criminologists Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong found that black people were twice as likely as whites to be watched for “no obvious reason.”

Surveillance cameras are already spreading across the United States well beyond DC. A survey done last year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 80 percent of police departments use CCTV, while another 10 percent are planning to do so. A 1998 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union counted 2,397 surveillance cameras, many private but some controlled by the police, all “trained on public streets, sidewalks, buildings and parks in Manhattan.” When asked for an explanation, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani waved the group away, saying, “They…raise questions about everything.” Even more disturbing is the increased use of hidden or disguised CCTV cameras in Gotham.

In Oakland, California, more than seventy surveillance cameras watch the civic center, and a private force of blazer-clad security personnel ushers away homeless sleepers and skateboarding youth. A duplicate system exists around San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where the rules include everything from no lying down to no kite flying to no bike riding. Santa Rosa, California, also has cameras watching its Courthouse Square and “Transit Mall” with the explicit intent of discouraging the presence of homeless people and youth.

Scores of other towns have similar small-scale systems. Worcester, Massachusetts, has CCTV around its parks. Virginia Beach uses CCTV to monitor the pedestrian crowds of its boardwalk. Similar arrangements exist on Mobile, Alabama’s Dauphin Street, site of the local Mardi Gras. More cameras (paid for with money confiscated during drug busts) watch Mobile’s Government Plaza, the park near its adjacent convention center and the traffic corridors that feed into downtown streets. In Los Angeles, police are using motion-sensing cameras to combat graffiti around government buildings.

One thing is clear in most of these cases. Jeffrey Rosen of George Washington School of Law sums it up well: “Surveillance cameras are technologies of classification and exclusion.” This can take the form of social prejudice, as when people of color, the homeless or youth are excessively monitored and driven from public space. Or, as is the case with intensive surveillance of demonstrations in DC, the “exclusions” can be more overtly political.