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DC Council restricts access to police and corrections department video cameras


The District of Columbia has created an emergency management agency that theoretically could monitor about 5,200 video cameras District-wide, but the DC Council has recently passed legislation that would prohibit the emergency agency from viewing cameras operated by the Metropolitan Police Department and the Department of Corrections.


After hearing testimony from a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union at a public hearing last October and contemplating various “privacy concerns,” the District of Columbia Council unanimously passed – and sent to the U.S. Congress for its review – a bill called the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency Use of Video Surveillance Regulations Amendment Act of 2009.


The District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA) is expected to manage the District’s response to natural or man-made emergencies. It has developed a Video Interoperability for Public Safety (VIPS) program, which is intended to provide a common operating framework, so emergency officials can monitor disparate cameras maintained by the DC public schools, transportation department and protective services division.


“This consolidated network is supposed to provide the District with enhanced real-time video monitoring, as well as post-event capture and retrieval,” said a legislative report issued last November by the DC Council’s committee on public safety and the judiciary.


However, after members of the DC Council began thinking about the implications of the new District-wide VIPS program, they decided to restrict access to certain cameras.


“Bill 18-282 ensures that cameras operated by the Metropolitan Police Department and the Department of Corrections are not used with the VIPS system,” explains the committee report. “The Metropolitan Police Department has the expertise to control and monitor its surveillance cameras and that responsibility should not be shared or transferred to the VIPS program. Moreover, monitoring of police cameras by both the police department and HSEMA would be duplicative, increase costs, and possibly jeopardize the integrity/security of the MPD program.”


Similarly, the DC Council determined that the VIPS program should not be allowed to monitor video cameras operated by the Department of Corrections, which uses its CCTV system to monitor the safety of inmates and staff at the DC jail.


“Corrections staff should not have to wait for a phone call from the VIPS center to notify them of a disturbance,” the committee report argued. “Moreover, monitoring prison security does not assist in any way HSEMA in its mission of managing the District’s emergency operations.”


The approved measure was forwarded to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which, due to the “home rule” provisions that apply to the District of Columbia, has 30 legislative days in which to review the proposed new law.


The bill, 18-282 was introduced last May by DC District Council Chairman Vincent Gray and Councilmember At-Large Phil Mendelson.


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