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COVER STORYSept. 1, 2006

Blockbustin’ Video!

One resident’s view on his neighborhood’s new anti-crime camera: “I hope someone tears that motherfucker down.”

By Dave Jamieson

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

A few weeks ago, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles H. Ramsey acknowledged that good-old-fashioned police work may no longer suffice during the District’s annual crime emergency. After the city saw 14 homicides in a two-week span, the D.C. Council gave the police department $2.3 million to install four dozen 24-hour surveillance cameras on street corners around the city. “It’s not a panacea,” Ramsey told the Washington Post. “It gives us a chance to see some crimes being committed in public places.” To get a fix on exactly who and what these eyes in the sky are watching, the Washington City Paper visited the corners where our first seven neighborhood cameras went up. We learned that residents either love them, hate them, or want to shoot them down with an AK-47 while wearing a mask.

1800 block of Benning Road NE

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

Any perp who tries to break into Frank Jones’ home hasn’t been reading the newspapers. His Kingman Park neighborhood was one of the first in the city to be deemed surveillance-worthy, and police positioned the new camera so that it looms over Jones’ modest garden apartment.

“They need to get that shit out of my front door,” says Jones, 35. He says he doesn’t mind police using such tactics—he just thinks there are better places for a camera than over his front yard. “I was wondering why they put it up here. All the bullshit happens over there,” he says, gesturing west down Benning Road. He says he recently saw police and emergency responders shut down the street up the block, where a man lay unconscious.

But Jones’ next-door neighbor, Lou, says plenty of trouble comes right to his front steps. A few months ago, someone tried to rob him right at his door. The thief made off with nothing, but he did manage to tear Lou’s coat as he fled. Lou welcomes the camera. “Sure, invade my privacy, what the fuck,” he says. “As long as it keeps this shit down, I’m happy that son of a bitch is there. They need more of them.” Until just a few days ago, says Lou, crack addicts came to the sidewalk in front of his home and were served “just like it was McDonald’s. You gotta deal with degenerates here. They see that I go to work, so when I come home they sit around bumming for quarters from me. They knock on my door—‘I need a bus ticket, man.’ ” But the camera changed all that immediately, he says. “They arrested one guy over here the other day, right underneath it. [The cops] said to him, ‘Look up at the camera, man.’ ”

Early in August, this stretch of Benning Road was declared a temporary drug-free zone by the police department, meaning cops were authorized to lock up any groups of users who failed to disperse after ordered to do so. Sixty-seven-year-old Albert Howard, who’s been selling watermelons out of his pickup truck here for three summers, says the new camera might help to push crime off the block. And if it does, he says residents might see more melons in their future.

“I usually get out of here by 6 o’clock,” says Howard. “But with the camera up, I might be willing to stay a little longer now.”

Likely crimes to be recorded or displaced: attempt to distribute; drug possession; robbery; watermelon theft

Privacy-invasion factor: 7

Crime-deterrence factor: 8

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

5300 block of Clay Terrace NE

In the city’s housing projects, camera installers needn’t worry about stepping on residents’ toes. Any city-owned structure is fair game for a camera, and the department seems to have taken full advantage of those liberties at the Clay Terrace projects: The impossible-to-miss camera hangs directly over the courtyards, attached to a chimney.

On June 11, 19-year-old Antonio Moten was shot in the head and killed at Clay Terrace. Even with the unsolved murder in mind, plenty of Clay Terrace residents were annoyed after recently watching a team of cops and technicians install the camera. “How would you feel if one day you looked out your window and there’s a camera staring back at you?” seethes a man who says he goes by the name Capone.

His friend Bobby Brown is considerably more receptive to the surveillance. “Say you got police chasing you, and they fuck you up—it’s gonna be right there on the camera,” rationalizes Brown, a former Clay Terrace resident who still visits the complex. “Some of these cops, when they make an arrest, they don’t know how to treat someone.”

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

As a police cruiser circles a Clay Terrace parking lot on a recent afternoon, two young men, Tony Jones and Joseph Thomas, sit in lawn chairs and debate the feasibility of residents removing the camera themselves.

“I hope someone tears that motherfucker down,” says Thomas, a rabid opponent of police surveillance.

“Ain’t gonna happen,” counters Jones. “That thing’s bulletproof.”

“It’ll come down,” presses Thomas.

“Yeah, OK, an AK-47 would take that motherfucker down, and you could mask up when you do it,” concedes Jones. “But they’re gonna be looking for that AK-47, and it would be red hot up in here until they found it. They’d treat it like you shot a police officer.”

One of the cops, who’s been listening to the discussion from his cruiser, tells Jones, “I like what you’re saying there. Those are some good thoughts.”

After the cops leave, Chris Johnson, a 30-year-old resident who organizes cookouts and concerts for the terrace, explains what bothers him most about the surveillance. He points to a locked-down building not 20 yards from the camera. “That used to be a rec center,” he says. “Now it’s like a storage place or something. I mean, I don’t know how much these cameras cost, but where’s the money for the benches that used to be here? It’s just sand and dirt in the courtyard—no one even knows how that dirt got there.” He looks past the courtyard. “Whoa, now look at this shit—”

He points to a stubbly dirt path that leads downhill toward the camera. Three boys, none of whom look more than 8 years old, are trying to ride a shopping cart down the steep grade. “This is what these kids do to entertain themselves here,” says Johnson.

Someone turns the corner, shouting to Johnson and friends, “Yo! Jump-out’s coming through!” And at that, everyone folds up his lawn chair and heads inside, leaving an empty lot for the camera to watch.

Likely crimes to be recorded or displaced: drug possession; attempt to distribute

Privacy-invasion factor: 9

Crime-deterrence factor: 9

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

4400 block of Quarles Street NE

Not every housing project has a logical epicenter like Clay Terrace does. Nearby Kenilworth Courts, for instance, is home to a vast network of streets, alleys, yards, and walkways. Installing an effective camera is a more difficult trick here, and it boils down to a rather arbitrary decision: Pick a courtyard, any courtyard.

The camera here is tucked back into an alley off Quarles Street, overlooking one of a slew of yards that are each shared by two residential buildings. Earlier this year, a gunman in a silver car opened fire on a crowd gathered just up the street, killing 22-year-old Anthony Goldsberry, according to a Washington Post report. (The case remains unsolved.)

Officer Jeff Mena, who’s detailed to the complex on a recent afternoon, says an alcove near the camera has served drug dealers well in the past. He says cars coming in from outside of the neighborhood can turn off Kenilworth Avenue onto Quarles and be served right at the alley, which lies just yards off the thoroughfare. Mena thinks that could change. “With the camera there, it might be different,” he muses. But there are plenty of other crime-friendly corners in the complex beyond the camera’s line of sight, which appears to be severely limited. Whatever crime does exist at the courts, Mena says, seems evenly distributed.

The surveillance here hasn’t stirred residents quite like it has at Clay Terrace. Whereas the terrace regulars were abuzz over their new camera, an informal survey in Kenilworth showed that about half of the residents weren’t even aware of theirs, which had been up for days. Some said they’d seen the signs but didn’t know where the camera was located.

Likely crimes to be recorded or displaced: drug possession; attempt to distribute

Privacy-invasion factor: 3

Crime-deterrence factor: 4

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

14th and Girard Streets NW

This camera captures D.C. gentrification in real time. Sure, it has a decent view of the pocket park on 14th Street, where the neighborhood’s old hats play cards and checkers and maybe discreetly tug on cold beer. But mostly the camera looms over the yet-to-
open-though-nearly-sold-out Lofts of Columbia Heights, which will have one-, two-, and three-bedroom luxury units.

“Live the epitome of urban chic,” the condo porn urges. “From the open floor plans to the raw cement ceilings to the exposed ducts and spacious layouts, every facet of our lofts are [sic] designed to incorporate upscale amenities including gourmet kitchens and spectacular designer bathrooms.” State-of-the-art surveillance, too.

Likely crimes to be recorded or displaced: open containers; illegal gambling; building without a permit

Privacy-invasion factor: 5

Crime-deterrence factor: 5

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

5th and O Streets NW

Until a few days ago, one of the city’s pilot surveillance cameras sat atop a tripod on the roof of a D.C. government building near the corner of 4th and O Streets NW. Unlike the other cameras sprouting up around town, which have a 360-degree field of vision and are encased in bulletproof boxes, this video camera appeared to be a classic point-and-shoot serving only temporary duty. In the public park across the street, some of the regulars swigging from their beers squinted at the rooftop, trying to determine whether the camera was pointed at them. They suspected it was.

“The cops actually used to tell us to come here,” said Maurice, who hangs out at the park occasionally to nurse a 22-ouncer. “They said, ‘If you’re gonna drink a beer, don’t do it on P Street in the residential area.’ So they had us start coming here. But then the police started coming in here like the Gestapo, and finally the cameras went up.”

The park on O Street has long been a refuge for violators of quality-of-life crimes. The way Maurice tells it, the social breakdown in the park is simple: “The crack smokers stay over there; the beer drinkers stay over here.” Violent crime, he adds, is rare in the park. “There was a stabbing here a few weeks ago,” he says. “Nothing too serious. Just a cut or whatever. Mostly it’s just people drinking beer around here.”

“I wanna drink a beer like anyone else,” says his friend, Marion Price, sipping from a brown bag. “I just don’t have a home to do it in.”

Price wasn’t all that surprised to see a camera pop up on the block. It’s been an increasingly more difficult place to sit or sleep without a visit from police, she says. She consults her pocket calendar and notes that shortly before dusk on July 28 and Aug. 4, park regulars were rousted by a bullhorn-toting advisory neighborhood commissioner, Al Hajj Mahdi Leroy J. Thorpe Jr., who was accompanied by police officers. They were told to vacate the park. The cameras, Price hypothesizes, will go wherever powerful residents make enough noise.

Until it was removed the other day, the temporary camera presided over a mundane scene: homeless people trying to get comfortable as they snoozed on benches and concrete ledges, fending off Asian tiger mosquitoes. The permanent camera was installed on an even sleepier-looking corner up the block, where the finishing touches are being put on a luxury condo.

Likely crimes to be recorded or displaced: open containers, simple possession, urinating in public

Privacy-invasion factor: 3

Crime-deterrence factor: 2

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

900 block of Valley Avenue SE

The camera recently installed at Wheeler Road and Valley Avenue SE is about two decades too late. In the late ’80s, it would have been perfectly positioned to catch all the wrongdoing at the Valley Green housing project. Now, though, the camera hangs across the street from a quiet development of town houses. It would be better suited three blocks down the road at the Wheeler Terrace apartment complex, which has seen three homicides this calendar year alone. Seventh District Commander Joel Maupin says the police would have loved to have installed the camera closer to Wheeler Terrace, but they ran into logistical problems.

“The reason they put it on that pole was because that was the only D.C. government pole” in the area, says Maupin. “From where it is now, we get a pretty good picture [of Wheeler Terrace], but we’d like to get a better angle.”

Where it stands now, the camera presides over the sprawling but desolate Oxon Run Parkway, whose acres here aren’t worth much more than a shortcut to Congress Park. The field languishes for long stretches without visitors: Its basketball court is strewn with rocks, and one of the hoops is missing its backboard.

“It’s a pretty quiet neighborhood nowadays,” says one cop working the park on a recent afternoon. “Not much goes on here, especially since they put these town houses up.”

Maupin says the city is trying to iron out an arrangement with Pepco in which the department would be permitted to hang cameras from the company’s utility poles. If Pepco agrees, Maupin says, he’d like to move the camera down the street so that the department can see the bustling Wheeler Terrace courtyard. Until then, they’ll have to settle for recording drivers who run red lights on Wheeler Road.

Likely crimes to be recorded: speeding; illegal dumping in Oxon Run stream

Privacy-invasion factor: 2

Crime-deterrence factor: 3

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

Unit block of K Street NW

The Temple Courts Apartments parking lot doubles as a courtyard for residents. There are no benches here, so locals either drag chairs or crates onto the sidewalk or make use of somebody’s bumper when they want fresh air. The new camera at Temple Courts, which hangs on the eastern side of the lot in an alley, takes in just about all of the activity in this makeshift lounge, as well as on most people’s front steps.

Temple Courts is a family-oriented complex, and locals’ views on their new camera tend to fall along generational lines. On one side of the lot, some middle-agers squat on folding chairs, watching after a group of about 20 kids who, in absence of a playground, are playing a game of their own invention on a patch of concrete. Among the elders, there’s nearly unanimous approval for the camera.

“Hell, this place needs it,” says one man. “I know that for a fact. And that’s a great spot for it.”

“Whatever keeps the neighborhood safe,” says another man.

“There are a lot of kids out here,” adds a woman, “and they need protection. We need more lights, too.”

But at the other end of the complex sits resident Daesheawn Johnson, 26. She says she grew up in the neighborhood. “I’ve been looking at cameras for years, and they don’t do anythingÉ.It’s a waste of time and a waste of money.” Temple Courts Apartments, for instance, has its own cameras, at least one of which stands over the same lot the police now record. Johnson says the police camera won’t do anything but push the complex’s habitués, unoffending or otherwise, to other corners or blocks. She says she’s already seen more people hanging out in front of her unit because it’s partially shielded from the camera.

“People are gonna do what they’re gonna do,” she says. “A camera is just ghetto decoration.”

Troy Smith and Andre Jackson, both perched on a couple of cars in the parking lot, describe the camera as something worse than government waste. Smith, a plumber’s apprentice, views it as the eternal presence of a police force he basically despises.

“This is like a modern-day jail now,” says Smith, 25, who grew up at the complex.

“Yeah, basically,” adds Jackson, 22.

“And I guess that’s fine, if you’re on the outside looking in,” adds Smith.

As he and Jackson talk with a reporter, a police cruiser slowly rolls through the parking lot, the officer behind the wheel eyeing the trio.

“This is what we do after work—sit on cars,” says Smith. “The cops’ll do jump-outs every day, frisk us, do coat checks, make me take my pants down and squat.” Acknowledging the cruiser, Smith tells the reporter, “They think you’re a buyer.”

The police officer gets on his loudspeaker. “We’re watching you,” he announces, looking at Smith, Jackson, and their visitor, and turning everyone else’s head in the parking lot. Then he rolls off.

“That’s how it goes around here,” says Smith.

Likely crimes to be recorded or displaced: attempt to distribute

Privacy-invasion factor: 8

Crime-deterrence factor: 7 CP

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