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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Surveillance camera use draws concerns

Two weeks ago, Thurston Hall resident Jerry Schall noticed that one of his cherished “special education” signs was stolen from his door. He reported the theft to University Police, who notified him that a security camera might have caught the perpetrator on tape.

“I hope they catch the person who did this,” Schall said. “I’ve had that sign for years; it’s been a part of my life.”

GW began installing surveillance cameras in dozens of locations around campus, including residence halls, the Marvin Center and academic facilities, in the early 1990s to increase campus security. Footage from cameras is often used in police investigations and has helped UPD solve several cases, UPD Chief Dolores Stafford said.

“(Cameras) are also an effective deterrent, preventing people from even committing crimes,” Stafford said. “Cameras have a psychological effect, just like the blue light phones. The presence of security cameras lets people know that the University cares about their safety.”

Stafford said the security tapes are only reviewed in connection with a case.

However, the GW chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has been actively questioning the use of security cameras in Washington, D.C., and on the GW campus.

“These cameras cost a lot of money to install and maintain, and they don’t prevent crimes from occurring,” said Robin Netalitz, president of the GW chapter of the ACLU. “Half of the (blue light) phones on this campus don’t even work. They should be addressing this, not spending more money on cameras.”

But John Petrie, assistant vice president for public safety and emergency management, said cameras are important facets of campus safety.

“If a camera is in a very visible location, crimes may be prevented,” Petrie said. “Cameras can prevent a second crime from occurring by allowing us to identify the criminals on videotape.”

He said cameras in residence halls and new academic buildings provide “reasonable coverage of the area,” but the University has encountered impediments to installation in older buildings.

“We’ve encountered some problems trying to put cameras in older academic buildings because it requires us to disrupt the daily activities which take place in the building,” Petrie said.

While Stafford would not disclose the cost of cameras, Petrie said cost is an important issue because funds for cameras come from individual department budgets. He noted that the Marvin Center pays for its own

Security cameras were placed in every hallway of Thurston Hall after a series of false fire alarms in the mid-1990s. The number of false fire alarms drastically decreased after several perpetrators were apprehended by UPD, Stafford said.

The Marvin Center has more than 100 digital security cameras covering hallways, exits, entrances, receiving docks and eating areas.

“Since the Marvin Center is a public building, we have to make sure that the people who aren’t necessarily the ‘good guys’ aren’t committing crimes,” said Michael Brown, associate director of Marvin Center Operations. “From a prosecution perspective, the digital cameras do a much better job of catching perpetrators because the images produced are so much clearer than the images produced by a tape-recording security camera system. We cover every public area we can without invading people’s privacy.”

Stafford said the University installed a security camera overlooking the streets outside the Media and Public Affairs building because expensive equipment is housed inside. She added that GW does not plan to install cameras overlooking all campus streets.

The presence of security cameras on the streets of Washington has recently become a contentious issue. The D.C. City Council is currently debating whether to expand public surveillance from the 14 cameras currently in place.

Cameras in place are spread out through downtown but also include locations such as the Smithsonian castle, L’Enfant Plaza and Dupont Circle.

While a referendum on the issue is unlikely, the City Council has scheduled a public oversight hearing for Dec. 12, at which any member of the public can testify before the Judiciary Committee. The council will use this testimony to try to gauge where the public stands and then make a decision on where D.C. public surveillance is headed.

However, some area students said they are still critical of the cameras’ usefulness.

“Cameras are not effective in preventing crimes and they’re an invasion of people’s privacy,” American University junior Alex Kargher said.

“We want to see more transparency in regards to the use of security cameras,” Netalitz said. “It is unclear as to who has access to these security cameras and how they are used in criminal investigations.”

Other students said they understand the presence of security cameras in campus buildings.

“I think security cameras are necessary,” freshman Andrew Rose said. “Security officials need to see what’s going on. There’s no way to keep us safe without cameras acting as their eyes.”

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