WASHINGTON - Minutes after district police receive the report of a suspicious package at Washington's Union Station, a technician in a darkened room across town begins punching buttons on a control panel, trying to focus a rooftop surveillance camera on the action.
The camera zooms in and out on a recent afternoon, seeking a clear shot of the hazardous materials team that at that moment is testing a white powder feared to be anthrax. It isn't. But police say if the city really were under attack, those closed-circuit real-time images could help them fight the threat.
Now, police here are planning to expand their use of such cameras, crafting a blueprint for what could become the most pervasive use of surveillance video in any American city.
Fearing another terrorist strike against the capital region, police hope to link closed-circuit video around Washington so that local and federal authorities can sit in a single location and monitor up to 88 simultaneous feeds of schools, power plants, subways, highways and other potential targets.
The plan, still in its early stages, expands on an existing $7 million Joint Operations Command Center designed by a NASA engineer to help police monitor the city during major events. The facility was built two years ago, but after the attacks of Sept. 11, officials decided to rig it to incorporate more video.
While police in Baltimore and other cities use closed-circuit cameras as a crime-control tool, the capital's command center has the potential for greater reach. It could, for example, offer overhead shots of Capitol Hill from a police helicopter or underground pictures of a Metro platform from a subway camera or images of a Maryland highway from a traffic-watch camera.
"It became dramatically evident to us after Sept. 11 that if there was any way to prevent those kinds of savage attacks, having live video feeds would certainly be one of those ways," says Steve Gaffigan, a senior executive with the district police who oversees the command center. "It's invaluable to be able to watch a continuous feed of a high-threat situation."
But the operation has incensed civil libertarians who say such heavy reliance on surveillance violates personal privacy rights. Though police are drafting guidelines for use of the cameras, critics fear those regulations will not do enough to prevent excessive government snooping. Congress and the city council are planning hearings on the issue.
"This presents the capacity to follow the movement of citizens in a way that's unprecedented," says Johnny Barnes, who heads the district chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Would you want to sunbathe in your back yard while someone takes your picture from a helicopter? Would you want a camera following you from location to location, without any evidence of a crime afoot? That's not the way we do things in America."
The command center, a state-of-the-art theater, is accessible only to officials whose palm print passes a security scan. On a recent afternoon in the hushed facility in the bowels of police headquarters, a wall of 22 oversized monitors (each can be divided into four pictures) glowed with images of the Capitol, the Justice Department, the Washington Monument.
Police argue there are strict controls guarding against abuse of the technology. For one thing, they need permission to tap into certain security feeds: Police, for example, can only look inside a school with the permission of school officials.
And police say the public may exaggerate the scope of the surveillance by assuming that any police camera is hooked into the system. But cameras that nab speeders and red-light runners are not part of the operation because they use still photography, not video.
Authorities also insist that they only plan to use the closed-circuit cameras in emergencies. Last week, the command center was humming in response to a terrorism alert by the Justice Department earlier in the month. But by this week, with the crisis seemingly averted, the command center was not even manned.
However, the monitoring shows no signs of going away. It is winning champions in government agencies and the private sector. Business owners in the Georgetown shopping district say they always wanted security cameras, and after the Sept. 11 attacks, police obliged. Police recently affixed a camera to the exterior of the Banana Republic, its lens trained on the area's busiest intersection.
"We've always thought the cameras provide a heightened sense of security," says Ken Gray, head of the Georgetown Partnership, a coalition of neighborhood businesses. "They are additional eyes of the police on the street."
Critics say it's unclear that such monitoring deters crime and, what's more, unscrupulous officials could easily abuse the system for voyeuristic ends. Further, they say, the plan invites the use of more invasive technology, such as listening devices and cameras that can see behind walls.
"The use of these cameras is about to expand exponentially," warns Guy Gwynne, an activist with the Federation of Citizens Associations, a city watchdog group. "Right now police have very laudable goals, but police come and go, and eventually a bad person could come along and abuse that power."
Most of the time, the images are brain-numbing. On one day in the command center, shots of the Labor Department and a Constitution Avenue street corner are easy to tune out: Some officials kill time watching an Olympic curling match instead. Police spokesman Kevin Morison doesn't see much excitement, either. "Major U-turn!" he exclaims when he sees a cab swerving on Independence Ave. (The command center does not issue traffic tickets.)
But, police say, boredom is better than its alternative. "We have not seen any acts of terrorism" on the video feeds, says Gaffigan, the command center chief. "And hopefully, we never will."