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Nkechi Taifa, American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area
Testimony on Video Technology in Police Surveillance and Traffic Control
June 13, 2002




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Testimony on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area

Nkechi Taifa, Member, Board of Directors

before the
Joint Public Oversight Hearing
Committee on the Judiciary
and the
Committee on Public Works and the Environment
of the
Council of the District of Columbia

on the
MPD's Camera Surveillance System
June 13, 2002

Let me make the ACLU's concerns clear at the outset. We oppose video cameras for general surveillance purposes. By that we mean monitoring people who are not suspected of any crime as they move about on the sidewalks and streets of the District of Columbia. By contrast, we are not opposed to video cameras operated by banks monitoring the area immediately adjacent to ATM machines; as there is an elevated likelihood of a specific criminal activity in those areas. Similarly, we do not oppose a video camera operated by a security officer from her workstation in the front of the building to monitor an entrance at the rear of the building.

We do not take a position on the use of cameras to detect persons who run red lights or who exceed the speed limit, provided such cameras are not part of a general surveillance network. Such cameras are distinguishable from general surveillance cameras in that they are targeted at specific offenses. They do not monitor the law-abiding public. And we would also distinguish and do not take a position on video cameras used for traffic control, as, for example, to determine the volume of traffic at specific choke points, provided such cameras are not part of a general surveillance network.

Surveillance Cameras in the District of Columbia

The surveillance system planned for Washington, D.C. is not limited to red light, speeding or traffic control cameras. In her testimony at the March 22nd hearing called by Congresswoman Constance Morelia, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Margaret Kellems acknowledged that "what we are talking about today is substantially different than using video in targeted law enforcement efforts." The question, as she testified, is the use of "this technology for controlling crime on a daily basis."

The Mayor and the Chief of Police, in interviews with the Washington Times on March 8 and 9, 2002, made clear what they have in mind. Mayor Williams reportedly said: "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." Chief of Police Ramsey echoed the Mayor's words: the District "must and will expand its use of surveillance cameras, much like London, which uses 150,000 cameras to monitor its population." The average London dweller can, in the course of a day, be on camera up to 300 times.1

Today there are about 2.5 million surveillance cameras across England used for general law enforcement. By adopting the British model, Washington, D.C. is not contemplating a narrowly tailored system.

According to the February 13, 2002 Press Release from Axis Communications, which is supplying the MPD system, the police network surveillance system uses digital cameras that employ wireless technology to send images to the Synchronized Operations Command Complex (SOCC). Axis uses an Internet Protocol for its surveillance systems that facilitates the transmission and access to the images. According to the Wall Street Journal of February 13, 2002, Axis is supplying 50 video servers to the Police Department, at a cost of about $2,000 each. Presumably there are substantial additional costs for hardware and software to support these video servers. Fifty video servers belie the modest surveillance system described in MPD briefings. 

The Challenge to the Council

The first task of the Council is to understand precisely the size, capabilities, and cost of the surveillance system the Police Department already has in place. The extent of the system contemplated is not acknowledged by the draft DCMR chapter 25 circulated to today's witnesses. The MPD draft refers to "Closed Circuit Television" or "CCTV." Although CCTV is defined broadly in the draft regulation, that expression commonly refers to earlier systems, far more primitive than the Axis system MPD purchased. Most importantly, rather than limit the surveillance camera system to that already in place, the draft MPD regulations would provide a license for its wholesale expansion. For that reason alone, the draft is unacceptable.

The responsibility of the Council is to evaluate the interests of privacy and public safety where they are said to be in competition. American values of individual liberty require that those who would diminish our freedoms bear the burden of proving that the sacrifice is worthwhile.

To make their case, the proponents of surveillance cameras must prove four points: 

  1. Surveillance cameras are effective at fighting crime. 
  2. Creating an extensive network of surveillance cameras in the District will not reduce resources for placing police officers into neighborhoods where they are needed. 
  3. Surveillance cameras will not undermine individual privacy and will not suppress freedom of speech and freedom of association. 
  4. Surveillance cameras are not subject to substantial abuse. 

Here are the reasons why the proponents cannot make the case for surveillance cameras.

Reason No. 1: Surveillance Cameras Undermine Individual Privacy And Freedom of Expression

The proponents of surveillance cameras say that there is no expectation of privacy in public places: sidewalks, parks, and the streets. And absent an expectation of privacy, they argue that video monitoring of persons in public places does not violate their rights. The jury is out as to whether the Constitution protects a right of privacy in public places. However that question is ultimately resolved, there can be no doubt that surveillance cameras change the quality of life there.

To this the proponents of surveillance cameras respond: "So what's the big deal? If I've done nothing wrong, I don't object to being on camera. Having cameras everywhere is no different than having a police officer on every corner and nobody could object to that." But this response is too quick and ill-considered. Think about privacy in public places this way:2

Because you are entitled to more privacy in your home than on the street does not mean that you are not entitled to any on the street. Consider these three examples: 

  1. If you are at a park talking with a friend, you can expect that passersby will hear some of your conversation. However, if a stranger stops and stands close to you to listen, you will rightly feel that your privacy is being invaded. Similarly, if someone in a nearby building surreptitiously listening in on your conversation using a directional microphone, you would feel that your privacy had been invaded. 
  2. If you were on a park bench reading a letter and someone read it over your shoulder, you would feel that your privacy had been invaded. You would feel no differently if you learned that someone read your letter using a video camera monitored at a distant police station. 
  3. You are walking to a restaurant eight blocks from your office to meet a friend and become aware that a police officer is walking directly behind you. When you turn, she turns, when you walk faster, she walks faster, and that continues until you reach the restaurant. You've done nothing wrong and cannot imagine why you are being followed. You would feel that your private space, your privacy, had been violated. You would feel no differently, if you had been similarly observed by the police in a video monitor.

Because we do not live in a police state, because we have no experience of being constantly monitored by the police, it's hard to imagine what it would feel like if we were. Do people in Beijing's Tianenmen Square behave differently knowing that they are being observed by the police? They do and know that political protest will bring the police down upon them. Would police video cameras on the National Mall change the way people express themselves at political demonstrations? They would. Knowing that your image might end up in police files would dampen the enthusiasm of many would-be demonstrators.

There can be little doubt that people behave differently knowing that they are being watched by the state. The British experience teaches us that surveillance cameras induce social conformity.

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. 

The Council stands before a Pandora's Box. It must decide whether it will allow it to be opened, because once opened it will not easily be closed. The question ultimately is what kind of a society we want for ourselves. Do we or do we not value our privacy and freedom of expression, whether it is in our homes or in public places.

Reason No. 2: Surveillance Camera Systems Are Not Effective Crime-Fighters 

Surveillance cameras are a bad buy. The "positive impact on crime" that Chief Ramsey attributes to surveillance cameras does not exist. "In London police say the [crime] problem is reaching crisis point. Figures from last November [2001] show street crime up by 55 percent on the equivalent month in 2000. Over the past nine months street crime in the capital is up by 33 percent." Sunday Times of London, Feb. 10, 2002. 

While a number of U.S. cities are using surveillance cameras for general law enforcement, they are doing so without any proof of the cameras' effectiveness as crime-fighting tools. And it is also important to note that a number of American cities have abandoned their surveillance camera systems as ineffectual: Detroit, Miami Beach, New York (Times Square), Hoboken, N.J., and Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

For three years, the Oakland, California 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 or a 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."

Simply put, there is no evidence that links publicly operated surveillance cameras to a decrease in crime rates. At best, studies have been inconclusive on the efficacy issue; at worst, they clearly show surveillance cameras to be completely ineffective. But none have found the dramatic effects that proponents claim follow the installation of cameras.

One of the world's leading experts on surveillance cameras, Dr. Jason Ditton, Professor of Criminology, Faculty of Law, University of Sheffield, England and the Director of the Scottish Centre for Criminology, Glasgow, Scotland, said he cannot establish such a correlation. "There isn't convincing evidence that open-street CCTV reduces either crime or the fear of crime .... If evidence of success is a prerequisite of installation, I can confirm that no such evidence exists." Communication with Prof. Ditton by Karen Walker, ACLU-NCA Law Intern, June 4, 2002.

MPD's proposal is but the thin edge of the sword. Before the Council acts on an issue of this magnitude, it should insist on data obtained from responsible, independent research plainly showing that surveillance cameras reduce crime rates. Reports crediting cameras for plummeting crime should be viewed with skepticism. Such claims are no better than the argument that surveillance cameras are responsible for London's skyrocketing crime rate.

Any analysis of the utility of surveillance cameras should also examine alternative strategies such as using the resources for community policing and non-intrusive measures like brighter street lamps and community safety education initiatives.

Scientific research on surveillance cameras' crime-fighting value has been conducted in the United Kingdom and Australia, which have had the longest and most extensive experience with cameras. Appended to this testimony is an executive summary of the principal independent studies of surveillance cameras.

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 three: First, criminals learn to stay out of camera view. Second, when criminals conclude that they cannot do that, they go elsewhere, the so-called displacement effect, so that crime rates are not reduced. And third, criminals learn how to disable the cameras.

Reason No. 3: 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 community-sensitive police officers into neighborhoods. High technology programs come at a high price. Not only is the equipment, installation, and maintenance of an extensive surveillance camera network expensive, but it will require qualified staff, both sworn officers and civilian employees, to monitor the screens. The Police Department should spend its scarce dollars by expanding its good work in Ward One. There, at the urging of Councilmember Jim Graham, the Department opened an additional stationhouse. Before the Council permits the Police Department to launch its surveillance camera program, it must be convinced that funds and personnel could not be better used for community policing. Given the need for more, not fewer, police officers in our neighborhoods, we submit that on its face that case cannot be made.

Reason No. 4: Surveillance Cameras are Subject to Great Abuse

Surveillance camera technology is readymade for abuse. The digitized images captured by the MPD's surveillance cameras can be instantly retransmitted to other 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 MPD Lieutenant, Jeffrey S. Stowe, used his position to extort money from men who frequented gay bars in the District. How much better he could have blackmailed them if he had videotapes.


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

  1. Surveillance cameras undermine individual privacy and are inimical to the American way of life.
  2. Surveillance cameras are not effective at fighting crime.
  3. Surveillance cameras reduce resources for placing community police officers into neighborhoods where they are needed.
  4. Surveillance cameras are subject to great abuse.

If the Council is not prepared to decide at this time that surveillance cameras are a bad idea, it should carefully review the cost of the Police Department's proposal. The Council must satisfy itself that surveillance cameras work, that they reduce crime. And the Council must ask whether money spent on surveillance cameras would not be better spent by placing additional community police officers into our neighborhoods.

It is always easier to set up a new system or program than to dismantle it. Interests attach to the continuation of any established program. Indeed that is what we are dealing with now. Without consulting the Council or the public, the Police Department went ahead and set up a surveillance camera system, thus presenting all of us with a fait accompli. They now want to greatly expand the system. Do they want to replicate London's system of 150,000 cameras, or would they be content with a mere 10,000? The Council must labor long and hard before giving the Police Department permission to establish any such system.

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  Appendix to ACLU-NCA Testimony
June 13, 2002


In our review of the literature, we found the following credible studies about the effectiveness of surveillance cameras.

Sydney, Australia: 2001 - A government-sponsored study found that the installation of 48 surveillance cameras as part of a crime-prevention initiative did not affect the crime rate in several inner-city neighborhoods.

Researchers evaluated the impact on crime of the "Safe City Strategy," introduced in some high-crime, inner city Sydney neighborhoods in 1998. The initiative - which Mayor Williams says the District should emulate - included improved street lighting and community safety education programs in addition to the 48 cameras. The strategy had minimal - if any - bearing on the crime rate. The study's authors said they were not able to distinguish the effects of the "Safe City Strategy" from other crime prevention measures, like ongoing police operations, that could account for any changes in crime rates. In any event, crime went up everywhere in Sydney, so at best the strategy may have prevented a larger increase in reports of serious assault and robbery without a weapon, the authors said. "An Evaluation of the Safe City Strategy in Central Sydney," Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, (R51.1), New South Wales, Australia.

Glasgow, Scotland: 1999 - An evaluation of Glasgow's street camera scheme produced no evidence to suggest that the cameras had reduced crime overall in the target area.

To counter Glasgow's image as a dangerous, high-crime area, the local government launched in 1994 the "Glasgow City Watch," a crime-prevention initiative that included the placement of 32 surveillance cameras in the city center. The initiative was aimed at reducing the cost of crime to businesses and government, increasing job opportunities and improving the overall "feel-good" factor in the downtown area. Researchers at the Scottish Centre for Criminology who examined the program found that "the cameras could not be said to have had a significant impact overall in reducing recorded crimes and offenses." The researchers also observed the actual operators of the cameras in the central control room and reported that the cameras were more likely to target "certain categories of the public" - usually young men "acting suspiciously." Depending on the individual operator's experience and perceptions, suspicious behavior included running, "hanging around" store fronts and wearing "puffa jackets," football shirts, baseball caps and woolly hats. "The Effect of Closed Circuit Television on Recorded Crime Rates and Public Concern About Crime in Glasgow," Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 30, Scottish Office Home Department Central Research Unit, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Hull, England: 1997 - A study of criteria used by camera operators to choose surveillance targets found that persons who were young, male and black were systematically and disproportionately selected, not because they were involved in criminal behavior but for "no obvious reason" except the personal bias of the camera operator.

Social scientists at the University of Hull analyzed surveillance camera operations in three cities to determine the process used by operators to decide who to watch and what behavior warranted intervention. The study found that absent any concrete information about potential targets, camera operators used their "common sense" to select those social groups that they believed were most likely to be deviant, basing their suspicion on stereotypical assumptions. Thus, black persons were between one and one half and two and one half times more likely to be watched than would be expected based on their representation in the population. And three of 10 targeted surveillances of black persons lasted nine minutes or more, while only one in nine white targets received that much attention. Although the operators selected nearly 900 persons for surveillance, police were deployed only 45 times, resulting in seven arrests, mostly for breach of the peace, assault or theft. The researchers said one major reason for the low deployment rate was that the operator's suspicion rarely had a concrete, objective basis. The researchers also found that anyone who directly challenged, "by gesture or by deed," the right of the cameras to monitor them were especially likely to be targeted. "Surveillance, Order and Social Control," Clive Norris, Department of Social Policy, University of Hull, England.

Newcastle, Birmingham and King's Lynn, England: 1995 - Surveillance cameras are most effective when used in large numbers to blanket a geographically simple downtown area, but in a complex city center, saturation is difficult to achieve and crime displacement is likely.

This study evaluated the effects of surveillance cameras on crime in three British city centers, where cameras had been in use for two or more years. A comparison of reported crimes pre- and post-installation found that, in the short term, a high level of coverage of cameras may deter burglary and other property crimes. Medium-term, however, the impact begins to fade. Cameras had "very little effect on overall levels" of personal crime, such as robbery, assault and theft, and there was some evidence that crime had been displaced to other nearby city center areas with partial or no camera coverage. "CCTV in Town Centres: Three Case Studies," Crime Detection and Prevention Series: Paper No. 68, Home Office Police Department Research Group, London.

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

2. George Radwanski,, Privacy Commissioner of Canada, remarks to the Ontario Bar Association Privacy Law Section on May 27, 2002.

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