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Johnny Barnes, Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area
Privacy vs. Security: Electronic Surveillance Cameras in the District of Columbia
March 22, 2002




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Press release Statement

American Civil Liberties Union

Communications Unit
122 Maryland Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20002
(202) 675-2312

Fax: (202) 546-1440
Email: media@dcaclu.org 
Web: www.aclu.org 


ACLU Says DC Surveillance Cameras Will Undermine Privacy;
Calls Them Unproven Sap on Resources Needed for Effective Measures

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Friday, March 22, 2002
Contact: Gabe Rottman (202) 675-2312

WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today told Congress that the implementation of a surveillance camera system in the District of Columbia would undermine individual privacy while doing nothing to prevent terrorism or crime, and would sap resources from other proven law enforcement measures.

"In every other city where these types of cameras have been tried - from London, England, to Oakland here in the America - the eventual verdict has been resounding dissatisfaction," said Johnny Barnes, Executive Director of the National Capital Area ACLU. "They're ineffective in preventing crime and an enormous sink of money and personnel."

Barnes testified this morning before the Subcommittee on the District of Columbia of the House Committee on Government Reform. In his testimony, Barnes expressed the ACLU's serious concern about a plan being contemplated by the District's Mayor and Chief of Police to introduce a broad network of surveillance cameras, which would-be different from -- and far more extensive than -- the already controversial "red light" traffic cameras.

Barnes argued that the camera system would go far beyond anything conceivably necessary to combat either regular street crime or terrorism and would undermine basic conceptions of personal privacy in DC. He further said that past experience has shown such surveillance systems. to be notoriously open to such abuses as racial profiling and voyeurism.

Of great concern also is the unfavorable cost-versus-benefit of such systems. While questionable in the improvement of public safety, surveillance camera systems have traditionally sapped municipal resources that are desperately needed for more effective, less intrusive anti-crime measures such as community policing, Barnes said.

Surveillance camera systems have been of little documented use in other American cities over the past several years. Detroit, Michigan abandoned its system in 1994 citing mixed results and high costs. Oakland, California also considered installing such a system but ultimately decided that there exists no evidence in the real world "that the presence of video surveillance cameras resulted in the prevention or reduction of crime."

"While we value our safety as much as anyone else, basic conceptions of privacy and common sense in America suggest that camera surveillance is simply not the way to go," Barnes said. "The District's money can be spent more effectively elsewhere."

The ACLU's testimony can be found at:

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My name is Johnny Barnes. I am the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area. Our affiliate has approximately 6,000 members from Washington, D.C. and Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland. The ACLU is a nationwide, non-partisan organization with nearly 300,000 members dedicated to protecting the individual liberties and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws of the United States.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today about the use of general surveillance cameras in the District of Columbia. In the wake of the horror of September 11th, all of us are extremely concerned about protecting public safety. Unfortunately, many of the proposals to enhance security have been grossly oversold. Surveillance cameras are one such bad idea. ,They would not make us safer and would undermine the individual liberties that are fundamental to what we are as a nation. The ACLU believes that we can be safe and free, that we do not have to destroy liberty in the name of security. !f terrorists are successful in destroying our freedoms, terrorism will have won.

Surveillance Cameras in the District of Columbia

First, we must be clear about what we mean by surveillance cameras as contemplated by the District's Mayor and his Chief of Police. We are not talking about cameras that detect cars running red lights or speeding. While those systems are not without their problems, their cameras focus on specific offenses. They are only supposed to record individual violations. Red light and speeding cameras are not supposed to record the movements of law-abiding persons, those who respect traffic lights and who do not speed.

The surveillance system planned for Washington, D.C. is totally different. It would provide an extensive network of cameras throughout the city that would be in operation at all times. It would be indiscriminate in recording the innocent and the lawbreaker alike. The purpose of the system would be to enhance law enforcement in general; searching for all crimes, from so-called quality of life crimes #o drug dealing to crimes of terror.

Any confusion about what the surveillance system for the District would entail was dispelled by the Mayor and the Chief of Police in recent interviews with the Washington Times.1 The paper reported that according to Mayor Anthony Williams, "increased government surveillance is a reality of the post-September 11 world"; "the District needs to follow the lead of cities such [as] London and Sydney, Australia and expand its camera system." The Mayor was quoted as saying, "We are in a new . . , really dangerous world now, and we have to maintain a higher level of security."

Chief of Police Charles Ramsey echoed the Mayor's words. He said that the District "must and will expand its use of surveillance cameras, much like London, which uses 150,000 cameras to monitor its population."

At the outset, the critical point is that Washington, D.C. by adopting the British model, is not contemplating a system narrowly limited to fight terrorism. The British system was originally justified by the fight against I.R.A. terrorism. However, today there are about 2.5 million surveillance cameras across England used for general law enforcement. Thus by adopting the British model, the Mayor has effectively acknowledged that September 11th is being used as a license to establish a surveillance system that goes far beyond the fight against terrorism. 

There are five principal reasons why the Mayor's proposal to set up a British-style surveillance system is a bad idea. The ACLU believes that these reasons argue conclusively that Washington, D.C. should abandon its plans to' create such a system.

Reason No. 1: Surveillance Camera Systems Are Not Effective Crime-Fighters 

Britain has the largest closed circuit television surveillance system in the world. Cameras are everywhere: on the streets, on buses and trains, in buildings, etc. The average London dweller can, in the course of a day, be filmed up to 300 times.2

British surveillance cameras, however, have not stopped crime. Examining the British experience, UPI reported on March 8, 2002 that "crime is soaring across the country. In London, a city of 8 million people, murder is going on at a record pace. Street robbery, the very crime that CCTV [closed circuit TV] is supposed to be best at deterring, will reach 50,000 this year." UPI noted: "A three-year study commissioned by the British government and conducted by the Scottish Center for Criminology suggested that `spy' cameras had little or no effect on crime. It concluded that 'reductions were noted in certain categories, but there was no evidence to suggest that the cameras had reduced crime overall.'"

The evidence from Australia is equally unpersuasive that surveillance cameras are effective against crime.3 At best, the camera system in Sydney that Mayor Williams wishes to emulate produced one arrest only every 160 days.4 Before limited resources are spent on surveillance cameras, close attention must be paid to the claimed benefits.

Closer to home, consider the experience of Oakland, California. For three years, the police department advocated the use of surveillance cameras in public places. The department had technology that could read the fine print on a flyer from hundreds of yards away, and that could recognize a license plate-ara face from more than a mile away. In a report to the City Council, Chief of Police Joseph Samuels, Jr., stated that his department. had hoped to be ". . . among the pioneers in the field of taped video camera surveillance" but ultimately found that ". . . there is no conclusive way to establish that the presence of video surveillance cameras resulted in the prevention or reduction of crime."

Detroit, Michigan took 14 years before it decided to abandon its surveillance camera system in 1994 citing high maintenance and personnel costs and mixed results.

The problem with taking a cold look at the claims made on behalf of surveillance cameras is that intuitively many people feel that cameras should be effective fighting crime. But "feel-good" is not the same thing as "do-good." There are many reasons why cameras do not work. Here are two: First, criminals learn to stay out of camera view. And second, when criminals conclude that they cannot do that, they go elsewhere, the so-called displacement effect, so that crime rates are not reduced.

Reason No. 2: Surveillance Cameras Displace More Effective Public Safety Measures

As feel-good measures, surveillance cameras lead us to waste limited resources that could be better spent putting police officers into neighborhoods. Surveillance cameras require an up front investment in technology and require ongoing maintenance. In addition, to monitor the video screens, police officers must be pulled off the street and put into the video control room.

Surveillance cameras are not a substitute for community policing. On March 14th, the Washington Post reported the "spate of violence" in the District. Six persons died and three suffered from gunshot wounds in five incidents over four days. D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham said that the Georgia Avenue shooting "underscores the fact that we need more officers in this neighborhood." Councilmember Kevin Chavous said that his constituents did not see the additional officers promised by police Chief Ramsey two months ago. An extensive camera surveillance system would require officers to monitor it. Given the difficulty in recruiting, not to speak of the limited budget, the District should not pull officers off the street to monitor cameras.

Reason No. 3: Surveillance Cameras Undermine Individual Privacy 

Surveillance cameras like other post-September 11th measures exact an unacceptable toll on our individual liberties. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) put the case for civil liberties very well. At a press conference on January 29th, the Congresswoman said:

September 11th accelerated the reach for blunt and often ineffective remedies to assure our security. Refusal of access through barricades and shut downs are everywhere in the country and we have now moved into the dangerous territory of infringements of personal liberty that has always enjoyed the highest protection . . . Intrusions into freedom of movement, privacy and our tradition of an open society are pervasive.

Surveillance cameras seriously intrude on individuals' right to privacy and have the potential to track individuals in their daily routines. In Britain, local police departments are already considering the use of facial recognition technology as a means to cross check individuals on the street against government databases. Other new surveillance technologies would pose increased threats to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Thermal imaging technology would enable cameras to capture images from behind closed doors and night vision can bring images in complete darkness up to daylight level.

To get a glimpse of the future if the District were to proceed to create a British-style, surveillance camera system, consider the impact of public closed circuit TVs on the quality of life in Britain. George Washington University Professor Jeffrey Rosen provided the following account in the New York Times Magazine of October 7, 2001:

Britain's experience under the watchful eye of the CCTV cameras is a vision of what Americans can expect if we choose to go down the same road in our efforts to achieve "homeland security." Although the cameras in Britain were initially justified as a way of combating terrorism, they soon came to serve a very different function. The cameras are designed not to produce arrests but to make people feel that they are being watched at all times. Instead of keeping terrorists off planes, biometric surveillance is being used to keep punks out of shopping malls. The people behind the live video screens are zooming in on unconventional behavior in public that in fact has nothing to do with terrorism. And rather than thwarting serious crime, the cameras are being used to enforce social conformity in ways that Americans may prefer to avoid.

Not only do surveillance cameras enforce social conformity as we learn from the British experience, but they inhibit protected First Amendment activity. We can expect that people will be much more reluctant to demonstrate on the Washington Mall and elsewhere in our nation's capital if they know that their images will end up in police files.

Reason No. 4: Permission to Establish Surveillance Cameras in the District Has Not Been Given

Americans value the right to be anonymous in a big city. We value the right to go about our business without the sense that the government is watching us as if we were going to break the law. All that would change if we were to import the British surveillance system. Before such a significant change can even be entertained, permission must be sought from those affected. That was not done in the District of Columbia. Neither the people nor their elected representatives on the Council were consulted. Instead, we read in the Wall Street Joumal of February 13th that the plans for surveillance cameras in Washington "go far beyond what is in use in other American cities." The recent statements of the Mayor and the Chief of Police confirm that.

Reason No. 5: Surveillance Cameras are Subject to Great Abuse

Surveillance camera technology is readymade for abuse. The digitized images captured by the surveillance cameras are displayed on computer monitors at MPD headquarters, where federal law enforcement officials work with MPD officials. These images can be instantly retransmitted to other police agencies, which in turn can send them elsewhere. At any point, these images can be stored for future use.

While surveillance cameras are free of racial, gender, ethnic, and other biases, those who operate them may not be. We are able to monitor profiling by police officers when they make traffic stops. We will not be able to adequately monitor how officers select their targets for close observation by surveillance cameras. According to the University of Hull in Britain, "Black people were between one-and-a half and two-and-a half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population."

And we also know from the British experience that those monitoring the screens are likely to engage in CCTV voyeurism. Attractive women and romantic couples are special targets. In the same New York Times Magazine article, Jeffrey Rosen described the surveillance control room in Hull, England:

During my time in the control room, from 9 p.m. to midnight, I experienced firsthand a phenomenon that critics of CCTV surveillance have often described: when you put a group of bored, unsupervised men in front of live video screens and allow them to zoom in on whatever happens to catch their eyes, they tend to spend a fair amount of time leering at women. "What catches the eye is groups of young men and attractive, young women," I was told by Clive Norris, the Hull criminologist. "It's what we call a sense of the obvious." There are plenty of stories of video voyeurism: a control room in the Midlands, for example, took close-up shots of women with large breasts and taped them up on the walls. In Hull, this temptation is magnified by the fact that part of the operators' job is to keep an eye on prostitutes. As it got late, though, there weren't enough prostitutes to keep us entertained, so we kept ourselves awake by scanning the streets in search of the purely consensual activities of boyfriends and girlfriends making out in cars. "She had her legs wrapped . around his waist a minute ago," one of the operators said appreciatively as we watched two teenagers go at it. "You'll be able to do an article on how reserved the British are, won't you?" he joked. Norris also found that operators, in addition to focusing on attractive young women, tend to focus on young men, especially those with dark skin. And those young men know they are being watched: CCTV is far less popular among black men than among British men as a whole. In Hull and elsewhere, rather than eliminating prejudicial surveillance and racial profiling, CCTV surveillance has tended to amplify it.

In addition, cameras provide new opportunities for privacy violations. Consider how a former D.C. Police Lieutenant used his position to extort money from men who frequented gay bars in the District. Or how a young, Black attorney was stopped and searched by Maryland State Police, directed by a written memorandum, a policy guideline, that called for the profiling, as probable drug dealers, Black men driving along Interstate 95. How much worse would such situations have been if law enforcement had the use of videotapes?


The District of Columbia should abandon its plans to establish a British style system of surveillance cameras. There are five reasons that compel this conclusion:

1. Surveillance cameras are not effective at fighting crime.

2. Surveillance cameras reduce resources for placing police officers into neighborhoods where they are needed.

3. Surveillance cameras undermine individual privacy and are inimical to the American way of life.

4. Surveillance cameras should not be contemplated without obtaining the explicit permission of those they impact. Permission was not granted in the District of Columbia.

5. Surveillance cameras are subject to great abuse.

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1. Washington Times of March 8 and 9, 2002, respectively.

2. The Guardian (London), Guardian Society, page 2, August 1, 2001. 

3. According to the Deputy Director of Sydney University's Institute of Criminology, Sydney Morning Herald; December 26, 2001. 

4. Ibid.

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