A few weeks ago, 7th District Commander Joel Maupin lamented the less-than-ideal placement of one of Southeast D.C.’s new Metropolitan Police Department surveillance cameras. Police had hoped to hang a camera near the courtyard of the Wheeler Terrace apartment buildings, where three people have been killed this year, but instead had to settle for a less beleaguered spot up the street at Wheeler Road and Valley Avenue SE. The problem, Maupin noted, was that the city didn’t own any fixtures near the Wheeler Terrace courtyard that could support a camera.
But sometimes the city is willing to lease what it doesn’t own. After what Pepco spokesperson Mary-Beth Corbett Hutchinson describes as a “lengthy negotiation,” city officials have struck a deal with the utilities company so that police can hang surveillance cameras from certain Pepco-owned utility poles around town. “Essentially, we will provide the use of the pole, and our engineers will dictate which poles can be used” safely, says Hutchinson. “We will not have anything to do with choosing [the site], installing, maintaining, or repairing any of the equipment.” Pepco regularly leases out space on its poles to other utility companies, says Hutchinson, who adds that the costs of such arrangements are confidential.
The deal vastly increases the city’s logistically friendly locations for its cameras, which until now have been affixed primarily to street lamps and District-owned poles. It also puts the private company in an unusually awkward position. Although the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation this summer giving police $2.3 million to deploy four dozen cameras around town, all of which will be installed by the end of the week, some politicians and civil-liberties advocates criticized the city for an earlier round of camera installations. Pepco’s willingness to lease its space to the city should not be seen as an endorsement of police surveillance, says Hutchinson.
“We have to offer the same facility to a government agency that we would offer to private customers,” she says. “It’s not a comment on whether we approve or disapprove of cameras.…I hope we won’t be cut into the principle of the issue. That’s for others to debate and decide.”
ADDENDUM, 9/21, 2:38 P.M.: Kevin P. Morison, director of communications for the Metropolitan Police Department, notes that none of the city’s 48 current cameras are on Pepco utility poles. Morison says the department may make use of the company’s poles in the future if more cameras are added.