The Watchmen How useless are the D.C. Police Department's crime cameras?

Darrow Montgomery

Near midnight on April 22, 2008, the sounds of squealing tires and gunshots reverberated through the neighborhood around 15th and East Capitol Streets. Police cruisers soon converged, casting household façades in blue and red and filling east Capitol Hill bedrooms with a familiar flickering glow. Concerned neighbors looked to the local police Listserv to find out what happened.

First District commander David Kamperin wrote the next day that “units responded to the sounds of gunshot. We recovered a handgun from that location and will be reviewing the CCTV to see if it gives us any additional information.”

One of the Metropolitan Police Department’s swiveling, orb-encased cameras had been attached to a traffic pole at that very intersection in 2006. “Closed-Circuit Television,” as the department refers to its network of surveillance cameras, played a big part in the department’s response to a spike in homicides that summer.

Kamperin says surveillance cameras reduce crime and help with investigations in his district. Just not in the case of the midnight gunshots. In response to a reporter’s inquiry the following month, Kamperin e-mailed that “[t]he viewing from the CCTV was not helpful” in solving the mystery.

No big surprise—this particular camera has a sorry track record: On July 16, 2007, four people were shot in a drive-by in front of the D.C. Express Market on the northeast corner of the intersection. One of the victims died. Apparently, the camera was as helpful in closing the murder as it was in deterring it—the department offered a $25,000 reward for tips three days after the shooting, and the case remains unsolved.


Nor is the surveillance dud at 15th and East Capitol an outlier. The department’s network of more than 120 cameras has been shooting the moon since installation of the first units began more than eight years ago at no trivial cost to the taxpayer. The District has invested $3.8 million in neighborhood crime cameras like the one at 15th and East Capitol and another $2.4 million in its Synchronized Operation Command Center, according to a budget report for fiscal 2009. In 2008, the city also benefited from $630,000 in Department of Homeland Security grant funds for camera replacements and $260,000 from Target Corp. to begin installation of 30 cameras in the Trinidad neighborhood.

And for what? “I’m not aware of any cases yet in which [surveillance footage] has actually been used in a prosecution,” says U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Channing Phillips. “In some instances they’ve been helpful in the investigative stage.”

The department’s Web site proudly declares that even though it had planned to activate the system of surveillance cameras in late September 2001, it was “pressed into action on the morning of September 11” to help the city respond to the day’s terrorist attacks.

Nobody knew anything about the camera heroics at the time. Nobody even knew the police had installed a camera network in the first place, until the Wall Street Journal broke the story on Feb. 13, 2002.

The disclosure generated a scandal. Newspaper reports proclaimed that the District had the most extensive surveillance network in the United States. Columnists lamented the arrival of an Orwellian state.

At the time, the department had only a dozen or so of its own cameras—about a fifth of the amount it has now. Even so, it had the ability to link up with hundreds belonging to the city’s public schools and Department of Transportation. The National Capital Area chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately demanded public hearings, and it got them. Multiple citizens associations, policy wonks, D.C. councilmembers, and even members of Congress joined the ACLU in harping on the camera plan.

“Citizens must have confidence that electronic surveillance is not going to infringe on their rights,” said former Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.), then the chairwoman of the House District of Columbia Subcommittee. She noted at a congressional hearing that nobody knew whether D.C. residents supported the cameras “because the public only learned about their existence after they had been put in place.”

And she warned that the police might broaden their system beyond its original scope if the department were not put on a leash: “Once the camel gets his nose under the tent, pretty soon the rest of the camel will be under the tent,” she said.

Then-Chief Charles Ramsey, in testimony before Congress in March 2002, tried to head off the civil-liberties backlash. Ramsey said the system would be used only in downtown areas during major events and moments of heightened alert for terrorism, and that while the department was “cautiously” evaluating an expansion of CCTV into neighborhoods for crime-fighting purposes, the cameras would be used only for specific reasons.

Diplomatic statements notwithstanding, the city wasn’t about to let the police set the rules for themselves. Regulations approved by the D.C. Council in late 2002 barred the department from doing any live monitoring of video feeds and required it to provide public notice for new cameras (except under “exigent circumstances”).

All that hand-wringing seems quaint now.

In July 2006, after a series of murders, Ramsey declared a “crime emergency.” The mayor’s office pushed the D.C. Council to pass legislation that, among other things, would grant Ramsey $3 million to eventually install 74 cameras throughout troubled neighborhoods. These “neighborhood” cameras were differentiated from the 18 “permanent” cameras already operating in downtown areas. But the difference was meaningless; nobody expected the nonpermanent cameras to go away once the emergency ended.

Indeed, the pendulum swung toward greater state-sponsored monitoring. A year ago, the Washington Post reported that police had begun watching video feeds live. Confronted with regulations that say “the video feeds may not be monitored in real time,” department spokeswoman Traci Hughes offers a lesson in legislative interpretation.

“The statute says ‘may,’ not ‘shall,’” she says. “It’s a matter of legal construction. Because the statute says ‘may,’ it does not prohibit the chief from actively monitoring the cameras.”

Art Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU’s local chapter, comments via e-mail, “I don’t think any judge would buy her argument. There is a difference between may and shall, but ‘may not’ means ‘no.’”

“Our D.C. attorney general is very creative when reading the law,” says At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who chairs the public safety committee. Mendelson believes only a citizen’s lawsuit can stop the active monitoring.

Last spring, Mayor Adrian Fenty announced that the city would be consolidating video feeds from more than 5,200 existing city cameras into one network, which could be monitored round-the-clock in real time every day. The city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency now has access to video feeds from cameras in schools and other public facilities. So much for public notice of new camera activity—other city agencies are not required to deploy signage near cameras, as the department is.

And so much for the Adrian Fenty of 2002, who as a councilmember said he was “struggling to find support for [the police’s] cameras, given the constitutional issues being raised.” He even joined a vote to trash the camera plan altogether because, as he put it, “Washington should be a beacon of freedom.”

The new Fenty’s 5,000-camera edict generated only a modest backlash. In these times of terrorism hysteria, politicians tend to experience outrage diminution syndrome when it comes to cameras. Take Mendelson, for example: It seemed his heart wasn’t in the fight when he told the Post, “We don’t want the camera swooping in on a cute girl in a short skirt.”

At least the utility of police cameras in panty-peeking has been empirically proven.

In warning Congress that cameras are “readymade for abuse,” the ACLU’s Johnny Barnes read an excerpt from a New York Times Magazine article on the surveillance boom. Reporter Jeffrey Rosen spent some time with the fellows who watch CCTV feeds in London:

“[W]hen 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,” Rosen wrote, “they tend to spend a fair amount of time leering at women.”

The blokes in the control room zoomed in on big boobs and teenagers necking in cars. Hard to imagine it doesn’t happen here, though ever since the Wall Street Journal blew up its surveillance network, the department has not been foolish enough to allow a reporter to hang out in a control room with the people watching the feeds, despite requests.

There’s no need to witness the cameras in action, though, if you’re interested in their actual crime-fighting abilities.

In the fall of 2007, in response to a FOIA request by the ACLU, the police admitted that surveillance footage had never been used to make an arrest from the start of the program to March 2007 (when the request was filed). Hughes subsequently insisted the cameras have been useful since then—they provided evidence that contributed to two arrests.

The department’s 2007 annual camera report, released early in 2008, says investigators viewed images 532 times and recovered 144 useful bits of video. One camera captured images the report says became “vital evidence” leading to the arrest of a murder suspect.

The department has not yet released an annual camera report for 2008—not that the year didn’t provide some camera moments worth reporting.

In the wee hours of Friday, Aug. 15, people were fighting at the Felix Lounge in Adams Morgan. Club security managed to throw out one of the troublemakers, but when police arrived, two of them were still inside. Two officers entered the club with the bouncer. In the midst of the ejection, more fighting erupted, with one of the officers on the receiving end.

According to court records, a club attendee “grabbed and started striking with his closed fist [Officer Warren Sanders] about the face.” The puncher fled through the club’s door, with Sanders and his partner in pursuit. Outside, the assailant went back to assailing: “As D1 was running he tripped and fell in the alley…D1 got up and started to punch OFC SANDERS about the face as well as me.”

Nor was this an amateur assailant: “OFC SANDERS sustained severe injuries to his jaw, and left eye. His eye was very red on the inside, and started to swell up from the impact of punches by D1. He was taken to Providence Hospital for his treatment.”

Turns out that the environs of Club Felix are the perfect place for a cop to get punched out. There’s a police security camera right out front, poised to document all the mayhem of party time on 18th Street. One officer says that the device didn’t yield anything useful, primarily because it was busy panning the area and didn’t get a tight shot of the action. “The camera moved around really slowly,” says the officer.

In February 2007, two men were shot in broad daylight on the 1600 block of Euclid Street NW, well within the purview of a camera. The camera had panned away from the incident. Third District Commander Larry McCoy told the Washington Times that the footage showed “nothing that’s going to close the case out.”

Retired Lt. Michael Smith was repeatedly frustrated by the cameras’ attention span. “You always have those cases,” he says. “You get a glimpse of people running away, you get the suspect running away. Sometimes you’ll see people hanging in the area and it panned away and then it will turn back and it’s complete pandemonium because somebody fired off rounds. The camera is constantly panning.”

Credit the police for knowing where to put their cameras. Several unsolved murders have happened within one block of a camera in the last two years. In each case, the department is offering the maximum $25,000 reward for tips leading to a conviction.

• At 9:55 p.m. on Aug. 23, 2007, Tayon James Glover was shot and killed on the 1400 block of Girard Street NW. A camera had been hanging from a light pole there since August 2006.

• At 1:36 a.m. on May 24, 2008, Berhanu Berhanu was shot to death on the 1900 block of 19th Street NW. A camera had been on a light pole in front of an Ethiopian restaurant there since 2006.

• On April 23, 2007, Delonte Marshall was shot on the 1300 block of Saratoga Avenue NE, near a police camera on a telephone pole at the intersection of Saratoga and 14th Street NE.

• At 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2007, Ashley Black was shot and killed in front of 901 21st Street NE, according to a listing on the department’s Web site. For more than a year, a camera had been hanging from a street pole less than a block away, at the intersection 21st Street and Maryland Avenue.

• Near 11 p.m. on June 21, 2008, Ernest Quick was shot to death on the 4700 block of Alabama Avenue SE. A camera was attached to a telephone pole there in 2006 or 2007 (the department’s Web site gives the exact same address for the camera and the murder).

• On Feb. 1, 2007, Marcell Erwin was found dying from multiple gunshot wounds after 5 a.m. on the 900 block of H Street NE. A police camera had been installed at 8th and H Streets the previous September, according to the department’s Web site.

• On Sept. 24, 2007, George Hill was shot and killed on the 4500 block of Quarles Street NE. The department’s site says there’s a camera on the 4400 block.

The department’s cameras are good for at least one very significant thing: public relations. Residents routinely demand camera installment near shady alleys and troubled side streets in the wake of crime waves. Last year, the mother of a man who’d been shot to death demanded that the mayor apologize for the city’s failure to catch the perp. If the city can pay for traffic cams, it can pay for crime cams, the woman said.

“What’s the difference in the price to put a camera up to catch someone speeding and putting a camera up to catch a killer?” she asked the mayor.

“Regular citizens want those crime cameras up,” says D.C. police union boss Kris Baumann, who never hesitates to criticize the department. Because citizens like cameras, Baumann says rank-and-file cops like them, too. A new camera and its accompanying signage give citizens a tangible piece of evidence that the department is trying to help the neighborhood.

Baumann stops short of claiming cameras provide police with tangible pieces of evidence in criminal investigations, but he does say that cameras are useful for fighting crime. He says they provide an unquantifiable benefit—drug dealers, for example, prefer not to do business directly in front of a surveillance device. So when they walk one block away from the camera to deal on a different corner, they’ve lost home-turf advantage.

“Not only does it push off those drug boys” from their preferred corner, Baumann says, “when you disrupt their systems and their setups, that’s when they start making mistakes.”

When the camera went up at 15th and East Capitol, the owner and proprietor of the corner store there said it “scared the hell” out of the boisterous teenagers who would always loiter in front of his business. But it took only a few weeks before they returned to business as usual.

Baumann can’t prove his claim that cameras help fight crime. “It’s very hard to show a statistical or empirical relationship” between cameras and crime reduction. But he says it will get easier, because improved technology means cameras are providing sharper pictures all the time.

Which is a good thing, because, according to Baumann, “you can’t tell anything from pictures five years ago.”

Today’s cameras shoot streetscapes in wide angles, tilting and panning in 180 and 360 degrees. Assistant Chief Patrick Burke says zoom capabilities are rarely used, and that most of the video goes unwatched as it feeds to HQ over a secure wireless network. If an incident occurs near a camera, investigators have 10 days to summon the footage before it’s automatically deleted.

“Typically, when you start a new program, people worry about mission creep and Big Brother,” says Burke. But there has not been a public surveillance abuse incident with the department cameras. Mendelson now expresses his opposition to police cameras more in terms of wastefulness than infringement of civil liberties. He believes attitudes toward surveillance won’t change before people realize what a waste of money it is: “Civilians are more complacent with Big Brother.”

A common lament of the civil liberties crowd used to be that the constant and increasing presence of surveillance cameras would acculturate modern society to an omnipresent government eyeball, and that we would miss something we didn’t understand until after we’d lost it: privacy.

Whether this is happening in Washington is an open question, but it is certainly clear that video surveillance, despite its rapid proliferation, is no longer the hot, controversial topic it used to be. One measure of this is the limpness of the ACLU’s opposition. All it needs is one lonesome crank to act as plaintiff in a principled assault on any government practice or policy that might infringe civil liberties.

When in response to the ACLU’s FOIA request the department bluntly admitted that surveillance footage had not contributed to a single arrest, the ACLU buried the revelation in its newsletter, and not a single newspaper bothered with a story.

“We didn’t publicize it enough,” says local ACLU director Johnny Barnes. “We just expected others to publicize it.”

And when the Police Department declared it would watch video feeds live, in real time, despite regulations that clearly forbid doing so—and even though the ACLU’s legal director is confident that no judge would buy the department’s argument that “no” means “yes”—the local defenders of civil liberty haven’t filed a lawsuit.

It’s not their fault: “No one has complained to us,” says Barnes.

Additional reporting by Jason Cherkis.

Our Readers Say

The British have spent billions creating a digital image database and custom ant-crime CCTV software. The system can’t assist real-time crime prevention and isn't much help with retroactive crime investigation or conviction, either. "It’s been an utter fiasco," said Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of New Scotland Yard, who runs the world’s largest police CCTV network.

Great work.
Your paper has gone to total shite. Week after week of sensational covers and hollow stories on the inside. These stories are paper thin and do nothing but attempt to pump up the masses against someone or something. Get back to real reporting [were you ever there?] or we will soon see the last of WCP!
Point to something thin or unsubstantiated in this story, "The Dude," and we can have a real discussion.
Everytime I tune in, you guys have these articles that seem worthless. Get it together Arthur D, or I must call HACK!
Big Tony, please be more specific. C+
I appreciate an article that details the thorny issues of surveillance and privacy. I'm also glad the author published the good findings of the ACLU, who do good work but are often portrayed negatively by the mainstream media.
I can tell you for sure who the bad guys are; they are the one who are watching you. You do not have to do anything wrong, all they have to do is say you did.
To whom does one turn for protection, justice and peace when the perpetrators of violence are the duly constituted authorities?
Adrian all I can say is WTF? Where do you live? If you live here please move. How about North Korea or parts of Africa. I know Iran Anywhere but in thus ciunrty.
sorry that's country
The point of this story seems to be that having surveillance cameras at all is worthless, but really it seems like the problem is that the cameras themselves are poorly designed. Constant panning is not going to help the police solve crimes. They would probably be better off just having a camera point down the block, or one with a motion sensor that can follow people as they move and focus in on any action as it takes place. There are cameras everywhere in our society - in nearly every retail store, and as Mr. Delaney points out in our schools and metro stations. They're there because they're useful, both as a deterrent and as a recording device to confirm any potential incident. That some citizens or the ACLU find it objectionable that the police would also like to use surveillance cameras in one of the nation's most dangerous cities is hard to understand.
Mr. Delaney, you cite Commander Kamperin as saying that cameras help with investigations and to reduce crime, but you don't ask the obvious follow up question: How? Is there no one in the department who can offer a decent answer to that question?
The question is not the value of the cameras, although this article puts even that into doubt. Our government was formed in the shadow of grave injustices perpetuated through the court system. The Salem Witch Trials were not just an old story to our fore fathers, but an indication of what the government can do when we start spying on one another. This kind of culture of mistrust has been the key to the downfalls of German Nationalism, Russian Communism, and even dates all the way back to the most unhinged moments of the Roman Empire with conscription lists from Nero's fever addled suspicions. Hemmingway and Conrad depicted such suspicion well in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Heart of Darkness. The lesson to be learned is that citizens should always know when they are being watched, and further that a nation that does not restrain itself from distrusting its citizens in desperate times, does not earn the security that it seeks.

These cameras, like torture in Gitmo, are a non-issue. Neither surveillance cameras nor torture actually stop crime of any kind, be it terrorism or otherwise. But even if they did, we would still be a poorer less deserving America for having used them.

Remember that our forefathers died for you to have the right to say: I will remain silent. I do not consent to a search. I wish to speak to my lawyer.
Jeremy, you ask if anyone in the department who boosts camera surveillance can offer a decent answer to the question of how, exactly, cameras fight crime.

The answer is no. Though several officials claimed cameras do help, when pressed, not one could provide a single example that shows how video surveillance helps fight crime. Nobody could some up with a single instance in which a camera helped officers make an arrest or even reduce crime in a specific area. They all said they'd get back to me with examples. They didn't. There you have it.
Security cameras are some straight bullshizzle. They don't solve nothing. They don't deter nothing. Waste of money.
Great article. The point I take away is that these cameras do not deter crime and are a total waste of money. Worse, they are ripe for abuse!
Looks like Baltimore police credit crime cameras for helping make an arrest just last week:
...sorry, the public is supposed to complain about clearly-illegal police actions and *that* is the initiative for the ACLU to initiate a legal action?

sounds like the ACLU is as much of a problem as the cops who disobey the law in "enforcing" it.
the cameras do work. look up the homicide closure rate in the district and compare it to other cities of comparable size. DC has a much higher closure percentage. This spike went up very soon after the adoption of the cameras.
The whole issue of crime/crime-prevention is a little deeper than the scope of this article. There's a huge difference between actual crime rates and the perception of crime. Trust me, very few citizens care about how much crime is going down in their neighborhood - what they care about is how safe they feel - and the relationship between the two is tenuous. There's been a ton of research in this field dating back to the landmark Atlantic article "Broken Windows." Hence, the public demand for cameras, and thus, also, the hard-to-quantify benefit Bauman refers to: though they may do little to actually combat crime, they make the public feel safer - and that is increasingly the goal of police departments. It's all politics now baby.
... hence also cops on Segways and on foot beats and on fixed posts with light trucks... does little to "combat crime" but seems to make the citizens happy (at least on the particular block the cop is on - if something goes down 3 blocks away... oh well, but overall there's more happy feelings).
This article is spot-on about one thing: the cameras on main roads push drug dealers on to side-streets. Specifically, on to my front stoop. I don't know if I agree with the opinion of the officer quoted above that moving a block down has inconvenienced the dealers in any significant way, but it certainly inconveniences the people who live on that block more than a little. Our community association has complained about this issue to the local police and they have pledged to send more patrols down our street to "deal with the issue," but noted that "loitering itself is not a crime."
cameras have proven themselves worthless... the deter nothing... as they see nothing...

time to can the program...
This is a typical example of technology being used for a purpose other than what it was designed for. A Pan Tilt Zoom camera sweeping the street on a pre programmed tour (attempting to cover a huge area) results in nothing being covered except by extreme coincidence. For less than half the price of that PTZ camera, they could install 2 or more stationary cameras that would cover more area with about 100% more efficiency. Then they might actually get the results that would justify having cameras and the infrastructure to support them. Typical government action, thinking they know how to implement a technology which they know nothing about, and wasting taxpayer dollars through trial and (mostly) error.
It's not the cameras that are useless, it's the idiots who decided to use the wrong equipment for the job.
think again says, "the cameras do work. look up the homicide closure rate in the district and compare it to other cities of comparable size. DC has a much higher closure percentage. This spike went up very soon after the adoption of the cameras."

When they installed cameras in my neighborhood, I won the lottery. Must have been because of the cameras.
This article is hilarious for all the wrong reasons. I do agree with what most bloggers assume to be the perception of crime solving and safety vs. the reality. Are the cameras a deterrent?? Sort of, but not as much now after this article. By empowering criminals with the camera's track record and functionality, you've basically increased potential for crime while still making people feel safe. See what I mean.

As some of us in urban settings have realized (especially if we have been a victim of crime), things don't work the same on T.V. detective shows as they do on DC streets. To be the NATION'S CAPITAL we fall far behind in crime fighting technology and the like. We are far from CSI:DC or even the basic Law and Order show. Just recently, we're finally going to get our own crime lab instead of leeching off the FBI's under the auspices of tax payers money, i.e. only the MOST important crimes get to use the technology of the lab, not the bargain basement robberies with a host of DNA evidence.

All this being said, outside of the cost, the article is basically saying the cameras are only as useful as the operators and the equipment itself. Criminals aren't stupid. They know that certain grocery stores don't have tapes connected to the cameras. They know about the "low contrast" of some of DC's cameras, meaning that the quality makes certain images indistinguishable. They ALSO know that most banks and ATM cameras are fixed and won't be panning away from the action. With all that, they take calculated risks. The true question is HOW DO WE INCREASE THEIR RISK FACTOR?

We don't do it by publicizing our vulnerabilities!
Bangkok cctv
You police-loving fascist types need to do a reset on what the police actually are and do.

They are NOT nice.

They are NOT here to fluff your mentally-ill yuppie egos.

They are NOT here to tuck you into your overpriced,overprivileged beds at night.

They are here to defend and extend fascism period. You probably support that program, but what you don't grasp is that you are OF NO REAL IMPORTANCE IN THE GRAND FASCIST SCHEME OF THINGS.

Get over yourselves and consider yourselves lucky to be alive.

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.