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Guy Gwynne, Federation of Citizens Associations of the District of Columbia
Testimony on Video Technology in Police Surveillance and Traffic Control
June 13, 2002




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Federation of Citizens Associations of the District of Columbia

June 13, 2002

Testimony of Guy Gwynne before the Committee on the Judiciary

At the outset of this hearing, we should note that there are two aspects of the critical official surveillance issue in the District: traffic monitoring devices and their use, and broad-area -cameras with zooming-in capabilities. The one is specific. The other is more generalized: The traffic camera issue seems clearly enough defined to be dealt with in the normal regulatory process. The issue of broad-area surveillance cameras, including audio surveillance is much more critical to the privacy-rights of the District's citizenry, however, and I will address that today.

Such video surveillance can easily become an intrusive search without a warrant and without probable cause or individualized suspicion. Advances in surveillance technology in recent years and the possibilities that this affords official agencies are. enormous. We have federal and state laws against wiretapping, with heavy penalties. Obviously, we cannot omit having the same sort of citizen protection extended to the new technology and its largely undefined legal status.

Since this committee's hearing in February on the issue, in the absence of other specific legislation, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department has prepared and circulated a set of new guidelines for police use that would govern the surveillance issue. The Department now proposes to enact these guidelines into a new Chapter 25 of Title 24 of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations (Public Space and Safety). On the face of it, this is anomalous -- a police department making, defining and applying its own law, in a field with implications broader than law enforcement. Nevertheless, the City Council must ultimately weigh and balance the undisputed enforcement needs of the police department with the protection and welfare needs of the citizenry.

An underlying assumption in the proposed police guidelines is that broad, non-traffic surveillance camera use is an effective law enforcement device,; and that it makes an appreciable difference in the level of crime fighting and deterrence. Apart from comparisons with differing results, there seems to be no underlying proof for this assumption. Indeed, a -number of U.S. cities, including Detroit, have tried non-specific camera surveillance and abandoned it as being ineffective for law enforcement purposes., The Council needs to mount an independent investigation of this.

This surveillance technology can be fraught with danger for abuse, however, in the wrong hands. The latitude for selective or unfair attention is extensive and needs legislative definition. Hypothetically, the case of the well-known former police lieutenant who spied on and blackmailed patrons of Washington gay bars comes to mind. How much more effective, for example, could his operations have been with a large-scale surveillance system behind him?

Another consideration is that the city should think twice before it mounts an expensive, resource-consuming enterprise, and that it should make sure that fair value is received for any investment in a large acquisition of surveillance equipment,. its staffing, its maintenance and lost opportunity costs. Increasingly, it appears that the proposed blanketing of the District with surveillance camera and data processing operations can be an expensive enterprise. The traffic surveillance camera operation, however one regards it, has the recommendation that it is very lucrative. Broad-based area surveillance is, on the whole, not profitable at all, and the resources that would be devoted to it could very well be used for more traditional law enforcement purposes.

It is unlikely that most of these concerns will be resolved at this hearing. Plus, the origin of the proposed new surveillance guidelines and the main assumption of efficacy on which they are based are dubious. Arguably, legislation to regulate the likely wide-ranging and important issue of-advanced and improving surveillance technology and its use among the people of the District should be legislated by the Council. The best way to achieve a workable law is likely for the Council to commission an independent, comparative study of the whole matter by a professional research firm, to be funded by a one-time appropriation. In the meantime, the proposed police department guidelines can operate as internal operating procedures, without the-status of law, until the study is completed and the Council can duly formulate legislation. A better, and better defined, law would be the result.

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