Credit: 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.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

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.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“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.