WASHINGTON – Though the Washington Metropolitan Police command and control center first went online in 1999 for the 50th anniversary of NATO, the events of Sept. 11 have fast-tracked the center into one of the most extensive surveillance operations in the country.
With powerful high-tech zoom lenses monitoring more than 200 key locations, and more on the way, police officers in Washington, D.C., will soon be able to peer into virtually every corner of the nation's capital.
"What we're really trying to do is extend the vision an officer would have if he was out on foot patrol or if she was in a squad car, or if someone was on horseback. It really just lets us see better what's going on in the city," said Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance Gainer.
The police department's latest use of the cameras was last week when the Metro police responded to FBI warnings of a possible terrorist attack. From their perch at headquarters, they could monitor the Capitol, Washington Monument and other landmarks in the city.
The changes have some civil liberties groups complaining that law enforcement is infringing on individual privacy rights.
"We become like China. We become like the former Soviet Union, monitoring the movement of citizens," said Johnny Barnes, executive director of the National Capital Area American Civil Liberties Union. "In this country, we have Times Square, we don't have Tiananmen Square."
More importantly, Barnes said the cameras give citizens "a false sense of security" by being able to see activity but not being at the scene to prevent a crime from happening.
"Cameras don't catch crooks, cops do. A camera would not prevent a robbery. It might help law enforcement find the person who committed the robbery, but it wouldn't prevent it."
Barnes used New York's Times Square as an example, where the multimillion-dollar camera system has resulted in 10 arrests for petty crimes over a 22-month period.
Still, Gainer says there's no infringement on privacy rights.
"Public space is very much that. There should be no expectation of privacy when you're out on the street."
Gainer admits that the cameras will only be useful if police are watching since police make no recordings nor do they use biometrics against some databases.
But, he said: "I don't think there's been too much hew and cry that people aren't getting enough protection. So we're being very deliberate where we're looking and why we're looking."
With the increase not only of surveillance cameras, but red light cameras, which record license plates so the District can send tickets, privacy rights will continue to be an issue.
"I think it's very fair for outsiders, whether it's the ACLU or others to say 'how are they doing this?' This is a very open book. That's why we have you in here and [are] letting [you] see how we're doing it. Monitor, watch us. If we do something wrong, we should be held accountable," Gainer said.