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Hearing on Privacy vs. Security: Electronic Surveillance in the Nation's Capital

Friday, March 22, 2002

Hearing on Privacy vs. Security: Electronic Surveillance in the Nation's Capital

Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Charles H. Ramsey
Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department

Chief Charles H. Ramsey delivered the following statement to the US House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform Subcommittee on the District of Columbia, The Honorable Constance A. Morella, Chairwoman. The hearing was held March 22, 2002.

Madame Chair, Congresswoman Norton, other members of the Subcommittee, staff, and guests: In recent weeks, an awful lot has been written and spoken about the Metropolitan Police Department's Joint Operations Command Center and our use of closed circuit TV (CCTV) within that center. Much of the reporting and analysis has been factual and reasonably accurate. Regrettably, some of it has been less than accurate - and some has been pure fantasy. That is why I applaud the Subcommittee for calling today's hearing, and I thank you for the opportunity to inject not only facts, but also some perspective, into this discussion.

Let me state, up front, that the Metropolitan Police Department welcomes public scrutiny of, and public debate over, our policies, programs and actions. Our Joint Operations Command Center, and the technology behind it, have been - and remain - an open book. We have made the JOCC accessible to news reporters from throughout the region, across the country and around the world. We have demonstrated the center to law enforcement and political leaders from Europe, Asia, and North and South America. (Let me add that our open invitation to members of the Subcommittee and to staff remains, at your earliest convenience.) And when the ACLU and other privacy rights groups expressed concern about our use of CCTV, we immediately invited representatives of those groups in, for a demonstration and an open and frank airing of their concerns. The bottom line: we welcome public debate on this issue, but we ask that the debate be based on facts, not on conjecture or conspiracy theories.

Fact #1: The Metropolitan Police Department is using CCTV in public spaces only in a limited, legal and responsible manner.

Perhaps the biggest misconception in this whole area is that we are operating some type of 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week video monitoring operation. We are not. The Joint Operations Command Center is activated only during major events in our city - marches or demonstrations, Presidential Inaugurations and the like - or during periods of heightened alert for terrorism. In fact, the JOCC was scheduled to be activated for the first time during the September 2001 meetings of the IMF and World Bank Group, but the center was pressed into action ahead of schedule on September 11th. The JOCC was up and operational prior to the jet slamming into the Pentagon that morning, and it provided critical law enforcement support in the days and weeks that followed. Understand that the JOCC is not a video monitoring center, and that video is only one element of a multi-agency command complex that has become critically important in the post-9/11 environment.

The center was brought down several weeks after September 11th, but was re-activated on February 11, following the specific terrorist alert related to February 12th. The center remained in operation until the end of the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City on February 24th; other than a few demonstrations, it has not been operational since then. My point is that our use of video is need-driven - when there are specific and tangible public safety benefits from using the technology. Put another way, we are using video because we "should," not simply because we "can."

Another misconception is that our Department somehow has a vast network of hundreds of cameras at our disposal at any moment. We do not. Our current system has approximately one dozen cameras that are mounted on buildings in downtown DC and focused on critical areas that are at high risk of terrorist attacks. These sites include the National Mall, monuments and museums, the plaza outside Union Station, the public areas surrounding the White House and the Capitol, as well as some of the major highways leading into the downtown area. Geographically, these areas represent only a small sliver of Washington, DC, but we believe they represent the highest risk targets when it comes to terrorism. During times of heightened alert, the video cameras give us a clear, real-time view of these potential targets, without having to dedicate police officers on the ground to this type of monitoring activity. We can also accept video feeds in our Command Center from both the U.S. Park Police helicopter and the MPD's Falcon One helicopter.

In addition to being limited in scope, our use of CCTV is also legally grounded in both the Constitution and case law. The cameras monitor only public spaces, and there is absolutely no audio overhear capability in our system. "Electronic surveillance," as defined by law, typically involves audio overhear, which does require judicial approval. Our video-only system of monitoring public space is not "electronic surveillance" in this legal sense.

Finally, our use of CCTV is responsible and sensitive to the privacy rights and expectations of individuals. When our cameras are operational, they focus on broad public areas, not on the individuals within those areas. For example, if individual members of the Subcommittee were to walk across Columbus Circle when our camera there was activated, people in the Command Center would be hard pressed to distinguish Madame Chair from Mrs. Norton from anyone else in the picture. Understand that these are wide-angle shots intended to pick up suspicious activities, not to track specific individuals. Of course, were someone to suddenly fall down clutching his chest and a crowd gathered, technicians could zoom-in the camera for a closer look - and potentially speed up the dispatch of a life-saving ambulance. Similarly, if officers were to detect a large truck stopping in a "No Parking" zone, with the occupants jumping out of the vehicle and running, the camera could zoom-in on the suspicious truck and on the suspicious individuals. That real-time information could potentially thwart a catastrophe and help apprehend potential terrorists. I am not suggesting that this or similar scenarios have happened, but in light of the events of September 11th, they are certainly not implausible. The availability of video would enable us to detect potential threats more quickly and to respond more effectively and safely.

Fact #2: The Metropolitan Police Department is working to link our Joint Operations Command Center with other public agency CCTV networks that monitor public spaces. But we are not currently linking with, nor do we plan to link with, privately operated networks that monitor private space.

In addition to the dozen cameras owned and operated by the MPD, our Department is testing the ability to link with existing public agency video networks. We are particularly interested in tying into traffic camera systems operated by transportation agencies in DC, Maryland and Virginia. The benefits of being able to see, in real time, traffic flow and bottlenecks during major events or evacuations are obvious. We have already successfully tested a linkage with the video system operated by the DC Public Schools inside its high schools. As part of a mock exercise of our response to a Columbine-like incident inside one of DC's schools, we were able to project video feeds from inside the test school into our JOCC. Were that scenario to be real, the real-time CCTV information would have been invaluable in allowing us to assess the situation thoroughly and accurately, to identify what resources were needed, and to determine points of entry - all without unduly endangering innocent students, faculty, staff or our officers. More recently, we have initiated discussions with the Metro system about developing and testing similar linkages with its video system in underground stations and platform.

In these and any other linkages we may develop with publicly operated video systems, there is one critically important safeguard that people need to understand. Access to these outside systems is controlled by the agency that operates the cameras, not by the Metropolitan Police Department. The only way the MPD will be able to access the DCPS video system is if school officials ask us to do so, and then provide the "key" to grant us access. Technologically and operationally, it is impossible for the MPD to simply "flick a switch" and take a look at what is happening inside Ballou or Dunbar or Wilson High School this morning. More importantly, absent a specific request from the schools based on a legitimate public safety need, the MPD would not want to engage in any such "fishing" expedition inside our schools, our subway system or other public facilities.

With respect to privately operated video networks, the MPD is not now linking with such systems, nor do we have plans to do so. Private cameras in the lobbies and elevators of apartment buildings and hotels will not join our network, as one national columnist recently stated (William Safire, "The Great Unwatched," The New York Times, February 18, 2002). Nor do we have any interest whatsoever in accessing video from hospital and nursing home rooms, as that same columnist suggested. And the 35-millimeter still-camera images that are taken with our red-light and photo radar cameras are not only technically incompatible with our video network, but of extremely limited value from a law enforcement or homeland security perspective. We are not working to link those cameras either.

Our mission is to protect the residents, workers and visitors in the District of Columbia. To the extent that limited video monitoring of public space allows us to achieve that goal, without interfering with personal privacy rights, we will engage in such monitoring. But we have absolutely no interest in peering into the private activities of anyone.

Fact #3: The Metropolitan Police Department is very carefully and cautiously evaluating any expansion of the current, limited network into neighborhood-based applications.

Our use of CCTV thus far has been limited to the downtown DC cameras I mentioned earlier, as well as one camera mounted near the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, NW, in the Georgetown commercial and entertainment area. That camera was purchased by the business and professional community in Georgetown, which then approached our Department about monitoring the images on an as-needed basis, from a community policing center located in the Georgetown community. Our Department agreed to this request, in part because we wanted to evaluate the operational feasibility and public safety benefits of neighborhood-based cameras.

In recent weeks, our Department has received several requests from community groups and individual residents seeking video cameras in their neighborhoods. Many of these people are frustrated with the level of crime in their communities - especially drug dealing, robbery, auto theft, theft from auto and other street crimes. And they believe that police- or even community-operated video cameras could provide both deterrence and enforcement benefits. Our Department cannot ignore these community requests, and we are studying the issues surrounding neighborhood-based cameras very carefully. Some of the issues we must consider are costs, scope and length of operation, and the resources needed to monitor the cameras when they are operational.

With any future neighborhood-based installations, there are certain principles we will follow. First, the cameras would have to target a specific public safety problem for which CCTV may prove beneficial. Second, there would have to be extensive and ongoing dialogue with the community about the deployment and operation of the cameras. Finally, there would have to be widespread community support for the use of the technology. The Metropolitan Police Department has absolutely no interest in putting cameras in communities that do not want them or for purposes that do not have clear public safety benefits.

Fact #4: As technology has advanced, policies and procedures on its use have not always kept pace. The Metropolitan Police Department recognizes this shortcoming, and we are working aggressively to develop and implement policies and procedures that address the key issues raised by this technology.

One of the concerns aired by the ACLU and others during our meeting last month was that policies, procedures and guidelines governing our use of CCTV were not as specific and formalized as they should be. In particular, these groups expressed concern about who could activate the Command Center, who controlled the cameras, would the images be recorded, and if so, how long would the recordings be retained, among other matters. All of these are legitimate issues that need to be clarified, and our Department has nearly completed a fast-track process to develop and implement new policies in this area. As part of this process, we invited the ACLU and others to provide information and input on the front end, and the opportunity to review our drafts on the back end. I respect the perspectives and insights of the individuals we met with, and our Department is committed to addressing their concerns to the extent possible. We are currently putting the finishing touches on the final draft of a new Department directive, for the Mayor's review and approval, on the use of CCTV, and we will certainly share it with the Subcommittee once it is finalized.

The development and implementation of these new policies and procedures will not only enhance public confidence in the system, but also improve our operational effectiveness. In particular, they will help us safeguard against any abuses of the system. This is critically important. For although I am confident that we have used video technology in a legal, ethical and responsible manner thus far, I am fully aware that some police officers in the past have abused their authority by using technology to harass, intimidate and even blackmail citizens. I reject the proposition that, just because the police have the technology, they will abuse it. But I certainly understand the serious concerns that some individuals and groups have expressed, based on their past experiences. I want to assure the Subcommittee that misuse of this technology will not be tolerated on my watch. The promulgation of these new policies and procedures will help ensure that is the case.

Fact #5: The Metropolitan Police Department does not view CCTV as a panacea in achieving either neighborhood safety or homeland security. It is simply one additional tool that can certainly support these efforts.

As potentially useful as video may be in certain circumstances, it is not a panacea, and the Metropolitan Police Department is not approaching it as such. While our Department and our city can learn a lot from the experiences of Great Britain, Australia and elsewhere, learning from them does not mean we are trying to emulate them.

I am committed to having as many of our uniformed police officers as possible out on the street, fighting crime and partnering with the community, not sitting behind a video monitor. Of course, if the targeted use of video can help the "cop on the beat" by providing him or her with an extra set of eyes in targeting a chronic problem, then we will look to provide the officer with that tool. But our intention is not to somehow transform policing in our city from a neighborhood-based, community policing strategy into one that hinges on video surveillance. I believe that, when used properly, CCTV can help support community policing. But I know that it will never replace community policing.

We are in a unique time, and in a unique city - a city that faces not only serious crime problems, but also the very real threat of terrorism. In this unique time and in this unique city, the Metropolitan Police Department has the unique responsibility of protecting not only our residents, but also the millions of people who come to our Nation's Capitol every year to work, to visit, to petition their government.

Given this uncertain environment and the enormous challenges we face, I would argue that it would be irresponsible for us not to use every legal tool at our disposal, including CCTV, to help protect our city and, ultimately, our democracy. We will continue to use these tools judiciously, responsibly, openly and with strong public oversight. Thank you very much.