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Limited Authorization of Video Surveillance and Privacy Protection Act of 2002 (Bill 14-946)

Thursday, December 12, 2002
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 Committee on the Judiciary, the Honorable Kathy Patterson, Chair, Council of the District of Columbia on December 12, 2002.

Madam Chair, members of the Committee, staff and guests – I welcome the opportunity to present this opening statement and to answer your questions regarding the Metropolitan Police Department’s use of Closed Circuit Television, or CCTV. My prepared statement has been posted on the Police Department’s website:

Over the past several months, this Committee, the full Council, the Metropolitan Police Department and other interested parties have worked very hard to develop policies and procedures in the area of CCTV that are comprehensive and common-sense. The Mayor submitted – and, last month, the Council approved – a detailed set of regulations on the use of the technology. I want to be very clear that the MPD takes the regulation of this technology very seriously, and we are taking steps, under the direction of our Office of Quality Assurance, to ensure strict compliance with the regulations.

For example, we have updated, and will soon publish, a modified Standard Operating Procedure for our Joint Operations Command Center that incorporates the new regulations, including all of the documentation requirements contained in the regulations. We have prepared operator certification documents and will provide training to both operators and Command Staff. We have received the specifications for public notification signs, and are now finalizing the language and the placement sites for those signs. We are also finalizing a fact sheet and other public notification materials that will be made available shortly, both in hard copy and on our website. And our Department is about to issue a new General Order that implements the regulations and communicates them throughout the agency.

The Committee is now considering legislation that would regulate, by statute, the Department’s CCTV program and create specific privacy protections, which our Department fully supports. Taken as a whole, the new regulations, our internal policies and the proposed legislation are wide-ranging; they are fair and appropriate; and, I believe, they strike the delicate balance between the very real public safety needs of our city in the post-September 11th environment and the privacy rights of our residents, workers and visitors.

As you may be aware, the American Bar Association has established a set of standards for criminal justice electronic surveillance. These standards were developed by a task force that included defense and civil litigation attorneys, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, professors and other experts in the field. I am pleased to report that the ABA has indicated that our current CCTV policies and procedures meet or exceed its comprehensive standards. The legislation now before the Committee will further reinforce our Department’s commitment to follow the very best, most up-to-date practices in this very sensitive and critical area. Our Department supports the overall goals and provisions of the legislation, with just a few minor recommended changes that I will detail later in my testimony.

But even without the proposed legislation, the District’s CCTV system is already one of, if not the most tightly regulated program of its kind in the nation. Other cities have implemented, and now operate, similar systems without the type of public input and legislative oversight that we have had in the District. Let me be clear on this point: our Department welcomes the scrutiny, the debate and the oversight that have accompanied our implementation of CCTV. We recognize that from a symbolic, as well as a realistic standpoint, the District of Columbia is unique. And our use of public safety technology must meet the highest standards there are – a goal that we are achieving here in DC.

As much as I welcome an open public discussion of CCTV, it is essential, however, that our dialogue be guided by facts – not by hyperbole, exaggeration or misinformation, as has been the case at times. I would like to take just a couple of moments to try and clear up – once and for all, I hope – a few of the lingering misconceptions about our CCTV system.

First, our system is not a round-the-clock, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a week “video surveillance” operation. Our current system was installed in anticipation of the massive protests expected for the fall 2001 meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group, but was pressed into action ahead of schedule when the terrorists struck on September 11th of that year. Presently, cameras are activated only during major events such as the IMF protests and during emergencies. For example, the system was activated during recent anti-war demonstrations, during the sniper investigation and for the heightened terrorism alert that coincided with the anniversary of September 11th. The vast majority of the time, including right now, our CCTV cameras are just not turned on.

The CCTV system is not some vast network of cameras that can “follow” people throughout the District – from the moment they leave their homes in the morning until the moment they return at night, as some critics have claimed. The MPD currently has 14 cameras mounted in limited parts of downtown DC that have been identified as potential terrorism targets and the frequent sites of major demonstrations. And while our system does have the capability to access feeds from other publicly operated CCTV systems – such as Department of Transportation traffic cameras, DC Public Schools and Metro – these linkages can occur only when the outside agencies specifically authorize the MPD to access their cameras. Technically, the MPD can not – and, philosophically, we would not – access these other systems without the express authorization of the other agency. Physically, they control the “switch,” not us.

Finally, our CCTV system does not monitor private space or otherwise infringe on personal privacy. When activated, the cameras are used to monitor public space only, where the courts have consistently held that individuals have no expectation of privacy. These are areas that are already in plain view of any police officer – or any citizen, for that matter – who might be on the street. Our regulations specifically prohibit police from singling out individuals arbitrarily or because of race, gender or other factors. And our system does not use biometric, or “face recognition,” technology, nor does it have audio overhear capability.

I should point out that in the latest generation of CCTV cameras, the technology itself can be used to safeguard against privacy infringements by allowing certain areas can be “blacked out.” For example, if we had a camera that was capable of viewing an apartment building, we could program the camera such that if it were to be pointed at that building, the image would be blacked out. The newest CCTV cameras have this capability as “standard equipment,” and existing cameras can have this function added. As our Department works to upgrade our CCTV technology, we will certainly look to take advantage of these privacy protections.

I appear here today, as committed as anyone else to safeguarding the privacy rights of our citizens. And I fully appreciate that our use of technology to enhance security must not infringe on individual rights, whether it be the right to privacy or the right to engage in peaceful and lawful protest. I, myself, am a product of the civil rights protest movement. I would not be here today – wearing the uniform of the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department – were it not for the large, peaceful and, ultimately, successful civil rights protests of the 1960s and 1970s. And I will not permit our use of CCTV or any other technology to interfere in any way, with the rights of people to lawfully protest in our city – today and in the future. In fact, I believe that technology is helping us be even more effective in protecting the right of peaceful protest and maintaining our vigilance against terrorism, while continuing to patrol our neighborhoods.

The reality is that we live in dangerous and uncertain times. Especially here in our nation’s capital, the potential for another terrorist attack is very real and ever-present. Per square mile, the District of Columbia undoubtedly has more potentially rich targets for terrorists than any other city in the nation. And as the war on terrorism continues abroad, we can expect more and more public debate and protest here at home, particularly in the District. At the same time, our residents are demanding that we maximize our police patrols in DC neighborhoods – even as we deal with the threat of terrorism and the additional responsibilities that go with it. Our limited use of CCTV technology is helping the Metropolitan Police Department be more effective in meeting these competing demands.

As you know, our Department has just over 3,600 officers. During a period of heightened alert for terrorism or during a large-scale demonstration or other major event, we simply do not have the resources to station police officers at every potential terrorist target or at every critical spot at a demonstration … while at the same time, maintaining our presence in the neighborhoods. CCTV allows us to monitor critical areas for suspicious activity – and to deploy officers quickly to those locations, should the need arise – without tying up valuable resources that are instead devoted to neighborhood crime problems.

For example, during some of the recent terrorism alerts, personnel monitoring the camera that shows the public space outside Union Station noted suspicious vehicles, packages or individuals at various times. Using this real-time visual information, personnel in our Joint Operations Command Center were able to dispatch officers to the scene – in some cases, US Capitol Police or Amtrak Police officers – to investigate those particular incidents, none of which turned out to be anything. Because of the availability of the CCTV system, we were able to effectively monitor a critical installation in our city and keep our officers on neighborhood patrols in their PSAs.

CCTV is also helping our Department be more effective in managing large-scale demonstrations and other major events. A clear, aerial view of these types of situations can be indispensable in determining how we react and, in some cases, how we don’t react. For example, during the spring 2000 anti-globalization protests, the video feeds provided early indications that some of the more violent demonstrators were preparing to rush police lines. Because of this advanced warning, we were able to deploy and coordinate reinforcements on the ground. The cameras proved equally valuable in similar circumstances during the 2001 Presidential Inauguration.

In a different situation – the spring 2002 pro-Palestinian demonstrations just north of Dupont Circle – temporary cameras we deployed helped to de-escalate a potentially tense confrontation. Officers on the street noticed that some demonstrators were beginning to amass behind a make-shift fence. Thinking that they might be trying to rush the police lines, our personnel began to put on CDU gear and make other preparations. But the camera feed in the JOCC showed that the number of demonstrators was smaller than it appeared on the ground, and that the fence was not a potential weapon, but rather as a prop to symbolize the “captivity” of the Palestinian people – details that the officers on the ground simply could not see. We communicated this information to the units on the scene and they stood down. Using a camera feed monitored by a small number of people in the JOCC, we were able to avoid a possible confrontation and an unnecessary deployment of our officers.

The bottom line is that during its short life, our current, limited use of CCTV has proven extremely beneficial during these types of situations. How effective CCTV cameras may be in helping to combat neighborhood crime remains a question for further study and closer examination. Much of the experience and research to date have focused on the use of CCTV in Great Britain. My staff’s review of the research suggests that CCTV is neither the panacea that proponents sometimes claim it is, nor is the technology completely ineffective, as some critics have charged. As with most things, the reality seems to lie somewhere in between.

For example, an August 2002 study by the British Home Office suggests that CCTV does reduce certain types of crime to a small degree – in particular, vehicular crimes in public parking areas – but may not have much of an impact in public transit or city center settings. Our own limited anecdotal experience with CCTV seems to support this conclusion. During the NBA All-Star weekend in DC a few years ago, a camera captured someone breaking into vehicles parked near the MCI Center. Officers were quickly dispatched to the scene, and the suspect was arrested. Clearly, however, much more research – especially research looking at CCTV in the US– is needed before any of us can make definitive statements, one way or the other, about its effectiveness in combating street crime.

The MPD does not currently operate, nor are we actively pursuing, the installation and use of any neighborhood-based cameras in DC, although we have received requests from various community organizations and individual residents who believe that cameras could serve to prevent crime in their neighborhoods. The most recent request came from the Hillcrest Community Civic Association and its President, Pastor Franklin Senger. The proposed legislation would authorize a small number of pilot projects to implement CCTV in neighborhood settings in DC. The Department supports this careful and deliberate approach to what would be a significant expansion of our existing CCTV program. We think that pilot programs can provide valuable experience and data that will help all of us evaluate the effectiveness of the technology here in DC, without having to rely on studies of different systems, targeting different crime problems, in different communities across the Atlantic.

We do have one specific recommendation to the proposed legislation in this area, however: rather than limiting the pilot program to two settings over the course of the test period, we would prefer the flexibility to move the pilot sites around to different parts of the city for shorter periods of time – but with no more than two projects running at any one time. This, we feel, would provide a richer base of information upon which to evaluate the technology in a variety of neighborhood settings.

In addition, I offer the following four recommended changes to the proposed legislation:

First, the Department recommends that the legislation incorporate language from the existing regulations – sections 2502.1 and 2502.5 – that allow the deployment of additional cameras in “exigent circumstances.” We fully support the concept of public notice and input prior to the deployment of new cameras. But in certain exigent circumstances – such as a credible threat against an area where we do not currently have cameras – we need the flexibility to deploy and activate temporary cameras on an expedited basis. The existing regulations provide that flexibility; we would like the legislation to do the same.

Second, we recommend that the definition of “video surveillance” be clarified and tightened. As currently written, this definition is quite broad and could be interpreted as covering all manner of cameras, including in-car cameras in our police vehicles, video and 35-millimeter cameras used in undercover investigations, DDOT traffic cameras, automated traffic enforcement cameras and others. I believe that the intent of the legislation is to regulate only those remote, networked video cameras that are capable of providing video feeds into the JOCC. We feel the definition of “video surveillance” should reflect this specific group of cameras and not inadvertently impact other law enforcement operations – in particular, drug investigations – that frequently include video or other types of cameras.

We also object to the provision that would require a court order to use any camera with zoom capability. The fact of the matter is that all of our CCTV cameras have this capability – and with good reason. If we see a suspicious vehicle parked outside a critical installation such as Union Station during a period of heightened alert, having the ability to zoom in to possibly capture a tag number or other identifying information would be crucial. If the intent here is to restrict the use of face-recognition technology or the arbitrary monitoring of individuals, then these provisions are already covered under regulation and the proposed law, and we support them. However, we do not believe that restricting our ability to use the standard zoom feature of the cameras is necessary or prudent.

Finally, the proposed legislation – unlike the regulations approved by the Council – does not permit the retention of video recordings for training purposes. I feel very strongly that this provision needs to be added to the legislation, because the video feeds can provide important information that our officers can learn from. For example, during the anti-globalization protests of April 2002, members of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence – during a non-permitted march – attempted to rush police lines. Our officers responded with a series of precision formations that prevented the protesters from literally taking the streets. The overhead video images show quite clearly both the proper police formations and their positive impact, and we have used those images to train other officers as they prepare for other major events. A person looking at the video cannot possibly identify any individuals in the crowd, but the crowd movements and the police response are crystal-clear – and very enlightening. We request that a training provision be added to the section of the legislation dealing with the retention of recordings.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to present this statement. Our Department remains committed to working with this Committee and the full Council as you continue to develop and refine CCTV policies and procedures that meet the unique public safety needs of our communities, while protecting the privacy rights of individual residents. Toward that end, I would invite any Councilmembers or staff who have not done so already, to visit our Joint Operations Command Center and receive a demonstration of the system – its uses and capabilities. Madame Chair, I recognize that you have visited the JOCC previously; we would welcome you and any of your colleagues for a more detailed briefing at your convenience.

Thank you very much.