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Government and People
on behalf of the
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 ColumbiaThe 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:
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 ExpressionThe 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:
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  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:
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.
Appendix to ACLU-NCA Testimony
ARE SURVEILLANCE CAMERAS EFFECTIVE AT FIGHTING CRIME
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