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D.C. mayor announces 'crime center' to surveil the public 24/7

Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the "real-time crime center," which will let police watch its residents all day long.


Civil rights activists are sounding the alarm on a new plan for 24-hour monitoring of surveillance cameras in Washington, D.C., which has been backed by the city’s Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser. 

On Thursday, Bowser announced a new facility, known as the "real-time crime center," which will be housed in the Metropolitan Police Department headquarters and allow law enforcement officials in the Washington metro area to watch livestreams of cameras surveilling the public for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

The announcement shocked the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose executive director, Monica Hopkins, called it an “alarming expansion of government surveillance.” 

Bowser and MPD Chief Pamela Smith framed the new center — opening in February — as a way to stem crime in the area, which police say has surged across several categories as of late. The mayor said the center will make up for a loss of police resources in recent years, stating “no camera will replace a live police officer, but it does enhance our ability to be in more places.”

The center will be used by law enforcement at the local and federal level, including the U.S. Capitol Police and the Secret Service. 

Smith said the center “will allow us to begin the investigation the moment we receive a call for assistance" and will be defined by a “commitment to leveraging technology and collaboration to keep our communities safe.”

On its face, that sounds good, right? What sane person doesn’t want crime addressed? But there’s a tradeoff when it comes to expansions of government surveillance. Theoretically, officials might be able to cut crime down to zero if they had complete insight into everyone’s actions at all times of the day. But the obvious downside to that — for residents, at least — would be the loss of privacy. 

And while police in Washington haven’t (yet) said they want to place a camera in every resident’s home, the expansion of the surveillance state in public seems likely to impose on people’s sense of freedom or independence, as well. In the nation's capital, Big Brother will be watching them more intensely — along with Big Sister Bowser.

The mayor said earlier this year she wants to double the number of public cameras surveilling the city's streets over the next two years. 

I see this as particularly tragic for Washington residents, who continue to be denied statehood and the adequate federal representation that comes with it. Earlier this year, we saw the pitfalls of that predicament, when President Joe Biden signed off on conservative lawmakers’ push to overturn criminal justice reforms that had been backed by the city council. (Federal law allows this, by the way).

I don’t imagine federal lawmakers will make similar objections to the shiny new surveillance center in Washington. And in the likely event those objections never come, the message from federal law enforcement on down will be that overbearing and cruel policing measures are preferable to more humane ones backed by the city's residents or their elected council members.

To brush up on the topic of high-tech surveillance, check out my chat with Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the New York-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, about the anti-democratic threats posed by law enforcement officials’ increasing reliance on surveillance technology. And for background on states that have implemented similar 24/7 surveillance centers, check out this HuffPost video I narrated in 2019. It examines a plan that was controversially deployed in Newark, New Jersey. 

In a district like Washington, which isn’t fully enfranchised, what's being enforced through high-tech surveillance is creeping illiberalism — not community safety.