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Smile! You’re on the neighbors’ security cameras
In response to recent serious crimes and general safety concerns, the Citizens Association of Georgetown has begun to install its own security cameras in the Georgetown area.
CAG has had discussions about the installation since July 2011. In CAG’s Newsletter for Dec. 2011, the plan to install cameras was publicly announced. Currently, three cameras are installed.
The first two cameras were donated by Bill Dean, a Georgetown resident and CEO of M.C. Dean, the security technology company responsible for installing the cameras. All additional cameras will be paid for by CAG using donations and membership dues.
“One is already up and operational. The other one is half way up, and the third one we are working on,” said CAG President Jennifer Altemus in a phone interview. “We have a probable location and we are working on getting it installed there.” Currently one camera is on the West side of Georgetown and another on the East, with the third most likely going on the West side. “It will go over towards Key Bridge, because that is a major in-and-out.” Altemus said.
Altemus refused to reveal the specific locations where the cameras would go. “We figure it sort of defeats the purpose of the cameras if the criminals know exactly where they are located,” she wrote in an email. Even so, Diane Colasanto, a member of the association’s public safety committee, wrote in an email to the CAG forum that “blocks subject to camera surveillance will contain signage notifying the public of that fact.”
The placement of the cameras, according to Altemus, is meant to “target the gateways in and out of Georgetown right now.” If police are looking for a car or a license plate or a certain physical description, CAG believes these areas would be the most helpful.
The cameras passively record with information stored “on the cloud”, which can be accessed in the CAG office, according to Altemus. “We keep it for a finite period” she said, and “only the police or people who file police reports can look at the information.”
Because CAG is a private organization posting its cameras on private property with the owners’ consent, the camera installation is legal. “The fourth amendment doesn’t apply to that activity as it applies to the activity of the government,” explained Arthur B. Spitzer, the legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital.
“I don’t want to give the impression, though, that we think this is a great idea.” Spitzer said. “We bemoan the fact that America is turning into a surveillance society.” Spitzer also challenged the effectiveness of cameras in deterring crime, pointing out how many videos there are of people robbing convenience stores. “So, it’s not real clear to us how much real benefit there will be, and it gives people a false sense of security and a real loss in privacy.”
Some members of the Georgetown community are concerned about a lack of transparency in the decision-making process. Some residents, like Jennifer Fiore, who has lived in Georgetown for 11 years and is not a member of CAG, do not object to the cameras themselves, but rather to the installation process, which she says has not been transparent.
“Quite clearly CAG is making these decisions” said Fiore, and she pointed out that membership in CAG is not a requirement to live in Georgetown, and that the leaders of CAG are not publicly elected. And yet, “I feel affected by their decisions nonetheless” Fiore said. In an email to the CAG forum, Fiore laid out her objections to the camera installation and lack of a discussion.
Colasanto posted a response. “CAG did try to make the community aware of our plans well in advance of installing the first CAG camera,” she wrote, adding that the decision was featured in the December newsletter, that CAG conducted a mailing campaign, and that several news outlets covered the decision.
Even so, Fiore was not satisfied with the level of disclosure. “My concern is that an active minority of Georgetown residents is acting on behalf of all residents without a thorough process for all of us to understand why, understand how, and agree to it in a community way,” she said in an interview.
Residents are not the only ones excluded from the conversation. In an email, University spokeswoman Stacy Kerr wrote that she was unaware of CAG’s efforts. “That’s not a proposal we’ve heard about and we are in very regular communication with neighborhood leaders,” she wrote.
Still, Altemus thinks the University may become involved. “We have broached cameras with them before, but they were not interested.” Altemus said. “But I know there are a lot of new people involved now. So I would imagine it would come up soon, especially with the Georgetown Community Partnership.” Department of Public Safety Chief Jay Gruber did not respond to requests for comment.
The Metropolitan Police Department attests that it was only briefly involved in the installation effort. “MPD’s only involvement was that CAG contacted the Second District and inquired about the legality of putting their own cameras on private property,” Gwendoly Crump, Director of MPD’s Office of Communications, wrote in an email. But even without being an active participant, Crump said that the department endorses the measure.
Although portrayed as a deterrent to crime and a resource for MPD in solving cases, there is concern the cameras will be used to pursue instances of public intoxication and other similar offenses in the vein of Stephen R. Brown’s blog DrunkenGeorgetownStudents.com. Asked if the cameras would be used to prosecute drunk and loud students, Altemus would only say “only if a crime has been committed.”