On Feb. 10, Capitol Hill resident William McLain was walking toward his home at the intersection of 1st Street and North Carolina Avenue SE when he saw a white van from Unity Construction and Management Services and a crew of about a half-dozen workers on the sidewalk. They had uncovered a manhole. One of the workers told McLain that they had a contract to set up cameras throughout Capitol Hill for the U.S. Capitol Police and that they were presently installing the preliminary cables for four 360-degree cameras at the intersection in front of McLain’s home.
“Now why in the hell they’d need four 360-degree cameras at one intersection is beyond me,” says McLain, an associate professor at the University of the District of Columbia Law School, who has lived on the Hill for over three decades.
Oscar Smith, president of Unity, confirms that his company is setting up surveillance cameras for the Capitol Police. According to Smith, the installation of the underground cable is part of a system that will surveil intersections near the Capitol.
“The whole idea of the system is to monitor truck traffic around the Senate and House facilities,” Smith says. The number of cameras going up is uncertain, though, because, Smith claims, the Capitol Police “change daily in their design and hopeful outcome.”
Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer says, “I wouldn’t give you the exact number. We’re trying to leverage technology to make the traffic run smoothly but keep the terrorists from plying the trade up here.” According to Gainer, the cameras will be fixed on different intersections, not on people’s homes. “These are very limited cameras that give you a perspective of traffic approaching an intersection,” he says.
The new cameras may be inconspicuous, but the crews installing them are not—on Tuesday, March 8, for example, a Unity crew was out in the snow at 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW installing cables for more cameras. Two white trucks bearing the Unity logo were parked at the corner. Three of the five workers in hard hats and neon-colored waterproof gear delivered cable from a spool into an uncovered manhole.
According to Smith, some cameras are already up. Another source within the company confirms that there are three in the vicinity of the intersection of Maryland and Constitution Avenues NE. The dome-shaped gray cameras, which resemble lamps, are attached to streetlight poles above traffic lights and street signs.
It’s no surprise that the Capitol Police haven’t issued press releases on the new surveillance system. When on Feb. 13, 2002, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) had had surveillance cameras downtown since before 9/11, the MPD faced protests from several quarters and had to wade through a series of hearings. The D.C. Council, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton all objected.
Kathy Patterson, then chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary, proposed a bill that would have restricted the MPD’s use of video surveillance. A key provision would have been the requirement of public notice before a camera was deployed unless it was “reasonably likely to achieve a legitimate law enforcement objective.” The bill never got out of committee.
“The reason that bill never went anywhere is that we were working on other stuff and we ran out of time,” says Amy Mauro, a former aide to the Judiciary Committee.
Instead, the D.C. Council wound up adopting guidelines proposed by the MPD itself, under which the rules and regulations of camera deployment and operation may be circumvented whenever “exigent circumstances” arise.
But that was the MPD, and this is the U.S. Capitol Police, a federal agency over which the D.C. Council has no oversight, which is not bound by the MPD’s guidelines. The Capitol Police are overseen by Congress, where D.C. residents are not fully represented. Furthermore, the MPD set up only 25 cameras, and all are downtown. The Capitol Police’s cameras will be more numerous than the MPD’s, and even though they will be trained on intersections, they will be set in a residential area.
McLain is not sure that the Capitol Police are doing anything they shouldn’t, but he’s wary.
“I would happily surrender whatever additional security or safety that comes from that surveillance for my privacy,” says McLain. “I’m very fearful that we’re surrendering—in the name of security—core values that once lost cannot be regained. And it’s happening right outside my front door.” CP
Additional reporting by Jason Cherkis.