Although police in the nation's capital recently turned off cameras
that had been capturing the comings and goings of city residents, the
public faces several long-term threats, not the least of which is the
eventual loss of privacy.
Because the cameras can be turned back on at any time in the future, a
whole generation of cops could become couch potato voyeurs participating
in high-tech government stalking. Not only would be this an incredible
waste of taxpayer resources, money that could be better spent putting
officers on the beat, but it could also be rife with potential mischief.
In the wake of September 11th, the District's top cops sensed a
political opening under the guise of safeguarding the nation's capital.
With the continuing threat of terrorist actions, D.C.'s version of "spy
TV" received lukewarm press, which is far better than the reaction would
have been before tragedy struck last fall. If future use of the cameras
garners favorable coverage, then it won't take long for other cities to
start spying as well.
D.C. police officials deftly used 9/11 as the backdrop to justify
their new endeavor, going so far as to claim their efforts were
unavoidable. Stephen Gaffigan, who heads up the project, told the Wall
Street Journal, "In the context of Sept. 11, we have no choice but to
accept greater use of this technology." But D.C. police chief Charles
Ramsey candidly admitted on CNN's Crossfire that the new surveillance
efforts have "nothing to do with terrorism."
Despite talk of laying down ground rules and establishing clear
policies to preclude abuse, D.C. police have a blank check to utilize
the labyrinth of cameras as they see fit. So far, police claim to have
used their Joint Operations Command Center only on special occasions,
such as the terrorist activity warning issued last month by the
Department of Justice.
Although D.C. police maintain that the cameras will only be activated
to assist government agents in times of high alert, there is nothing to
bind law enforcement to its promise. The D.C. city council never passed
authorizing legislation to establish clear parameters of acceptable
use. Local police in the nation's capital have plenary authority to
flip the switch on the cameras on a whim if they so choose.
In limited circumstances and in response to a specific, tangible
threat, keeping a watchful eye on sensitive areas is not particularly
sinister, in and of itself. If the police had to convince a judge
before each observation period, which could be done in mere minutes at
any time of day, then the public might have some reassurance that D.C.
won't become the city whose cameras never sleep. But there are no such
checks in place.
Government can never be trusted to police abuse of its own power, and
the police are no exception. This is not mere speculation in the
current situation; traffic cameras are going to be used for snooping-a
purpose well beyond the original scope. The trial run last month was
limited to less than two dozen cameras located mostly at federal
buildings-nothing terribly pernicious, but police officials already have
plans to expand the surveillance program to include
hundreds of cameras.
Police brass speak with reverent awe about Britain's truly Orwellian
system, with over two million cameras crisscrossing the country. Ramsey
and his minions lamely defend their program by noting that Brits don't
seem to care about their privacy, so neither should we. But there's a
reason our founding fathers waged war against the nation of bad teeth:
Americans treasure freedom and liberty above all else, and Brits don't.
Given that D.C.'s system aspires to be like the more extensive one
across the Atlantic, it's worth knowing whether or not millions of eyes
in the sky have reduced crime. They haven't. Crime has actually gone
up. The cameras have only succeeded in moving criminals away from the
Several cities in America have already tried and abandoned
surveillance systems. New York kept close inspection on Times Square
back in the 1970's, well before Rudy Guiliani cleaned it up with
old-fashioned police work, and the 22-month experiment netted all of 10
bad guys. Detroit ditched its 15-year program in the mid-1990's because
they determined it simply wasn't cost-effective to police thru
With upkeep and maintenance for hundreds of cameras, not to mention
countless man-hours of cops parked in front of a TV screen instead of on
the street, D.C. will likely run into the same financial morass as
If D.C. police insist on running a surveillance program with no
effective safeguards, the camera system could prove a very real threat
to liberty-one that could spread to cities nationwide.