On Wednesday, Oct. 30, the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area organized a Lobby Day to urge D.C. Council embers to oppose the Metropolitan Police Department’s use of surveillance cameras throughout Washington, D.C. So far, the organization has met with various civic organizations and spoken at several universities, including Georgetown Law School, George Washington and Howard universities, to encourage students to write their council members to dismantle the cameras.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal alerted the ACLU-NCA of these cameras earlier this year and triggered the grassroots campaign. The organization’s primary focus has been to encourage constituents to contact their council members and share their concerns. It also testified at a Council Hearing in opposition to the cameras. A dialogue between the organization and the police department has also been ongoing.

Sarah Ghani, outreach coordinator for the ACLU-NCA, explained that “the goal [of the event] was to bring constituents together and lobby D.C. Council’s members and let them know that we do not support the surveillance cameras around the District.”

The Lobby Day commenced at 9 a.m. at the Arnold & Porter Law Firm located on 555 12th Street, NW. About 60 people convened and divided into eight groups and walked to the nearby Wilson Building to meet with the Ward Council Members, each of whom represents one of the eight wards of the District. Afterward, demonstrators met with D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp. Constituents had the opportunity to speak either directly with council members or with their staff.

“I think it was successful. They [council members] definitely met with our group of constituents. There was a diversity of different people there who shared their concerns and I think we were very successful on that level,” Ghani said.

On Nov. 7, council members will vote whether or not to approve the surveillance cameras. “We are urging council members to vote `no,’ because we feel that they should in no way legitimize them [the surveillance cameras],” Ghani said.

Ghani reflected on the police department’s policy to utilize the cameras. “They said this [surveillance camera system] was brought to fight terrorism so you can see how they’re riding on this.” She later explained that police installed the cameras prior to Sept. 11 and without notifying the community or the council.

“They [MPD] say there are three reasons when they’ll turn on the cameras: traffic, protest or exigent circumstances. `Exigent’ is a very vague word and that’s something that concerns us,” she said. Ghani later clarified that the ACLU-NCA does not oppose the use of cameras to deal with traffic, such as the implementation of speeding cameras.

The ACLU-NCA argues against the use of surveillance cameras by asserting that the devices are ineffective, inherently violate civil liberties and that the money spent on the camera system could be used to increase direct law enforcement. “The cameras simply don’t work. We know that London has cameras up and they started with a few and now have over 150,000. The crime rate has gone up. There is no conclusive evidence to show that the cameras reduce crime. The studies that have been done actually show that the cameras have been ineffective,” Ghani said. She explained the issue of “displacement” – that crime may be less prevalent in the area of the camera because the street lights used to illuminate the view of the camera effectively push crime to other less-lit areas.

The ACLU-NCA also emphasizes the consequential civil liberties violations. “Cameras undermine privacy and deter from freedom of expression. We know that the police department has used these cameras in major demonstrations. People would be less likely to protest if they knew that there image was being stored,” Ghani said.

Finally, Ghani insisted that the funding for the surveillance cameras could be better used to increase direct police enforcement. “We know that the citizens of D.C. are desperately seeking more police officers on the streets. $9 million has already been spent and something like 238 new police officers’ salaries could have been paid. [We need] people who can actually respond to something and not just watch it,” she said.

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