Cameras everywhere

VIDEO SURVEILLANCE
Cameras everywhere

D.C. Police have used the opportunity presented by the summer crime emergency to install surveillance cameras throughout the city. The cameras are clearly marked with the emblem of the Metropolitan Police Department and a sign announcing the surveillance: “This Area May Be Monitored by the Metropolitan Police Using Closed Circuit Television.”

The U.S. Capitol Police began a much, much less publicized installation of a surveillance camera network throughout Capitol Hill sometime before March 2005. It’s called the “Volpe Truck Interdiction System.” Ostensibly it is a counterterrorism measure.

But nobody knows anything about it: “We don’t discuss our security issues on the Hill,” says Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider. So don’t bother looking for any signs.

The exact purpose of the system and how it works remain mysteries to local government; the Capitol Police answer to Congress, where D.C. residents have no say.

The National Capital Area ACLU took a stab at getting a little info, with no luck.

“The Department of Transportation drew a veil of secrecy over all the funding they put into the Capitol cameras and so we learned nothing,” says Fritz Mulhauser, a Hill resident and ACLU staff lawyer whose Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about the cameras were shot down by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

And there’s no filing FOIA requests with the congressional cops directly, because Congress, of course, exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act.

None of this means you can’t see the cameras all over the neighborhood, as at 7th and Pennsylvania S.E. or 3rd and Maryland N.E., for example. These types of cameras — surveying from within upside-down domes mounted on traffic poles — can swivel and zoom through 360 degrees. They’re not half as conspicuous as the MPD’s cameras, but they’re certainly not hidden.

There is a way to bypass the government’s “veil of secrecy” — just call the guy who did the installation work and ask what’s happening with the project.

“I can tell you the long answer to that is nothing. Nothing’s happening with it,” says O.J. Moore, vice president of Unity CMS, the subcontractor that put up the cameras. Over a year ago, somebody higher up — Moore doesn’t know who — decided that the cost was too high. “I do know that funding for the war got to be an issue,” Moore says.

I got an official word from Salley Collins, press secretary for the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the Sergeant at Arms, who chairs the board overseeing the Capitol Police: “We have contracts with various entities to increase surveillance capabilities [in the Capitol Hill area], however we are not able to provide any specifics on those for obvious reasons.”


 
THE RICKY CELDRAN EXPERIENCE
All hail this cab

Diamond Cab number 555 arrived at my house on a gray, drizzly afternoon last week. I got in and told the driver where I wanted to go, and we started moving.

I noticed my cabbie had on a bright red cowboy hat, and that he was holding a microphone.

“Arthur,” he said, his voice reverberating through the car speakers, “I want to prove to you that you’re very special to me.”

Then music started. He began singing “Hello Dolly,” substituting my name for “Dolly.”

This is the Ricky Celdran experience. He’s got a karaoke machine set up between the driver and passenger seats, and he’ll sing to you all the way to work, even if you’re a just a chump on a rainy Tuesday. He’s been driving a cab for 41 years.

“Aren’t these some great songs?” Celdran says. He mainly likes showtunes and country; during my ride I heard some Cabaret and some Hank Williams. Most of the recordings are homemade. In the back of the seats Celdran keeps stacks of laminated sheets with the songs he knows, so his passengers can make requests and sing along if they feel like it. And if his passengers think they’re good, Celdran says he will make a recording and give you a CD — just another amenity on top of the color TV, XM radio and free phone.

Celdran is an entrepreneur; he considers his competition not to be other cabs, but Town Car chauffeurs. He’s built up a long list of regular clients, such as NPR’s Scott Simon, who you can see in a photo taped to the karaoke machine. He says he recently gave Rep. Cathy McMorris (R-Wash.) a ride to the vice president’s house, and sang to her all the way.

“I think everyone needs to take a ride with Ricky,” McMorris says.

“It's an experience of a lifetime.”

“You’re special to me because you’re a paying customer,” he says to me. It’s a breath of fresh air; taxi service can be unreliable when you call for a cab at night, and it’s extremely common for a driver to rip you off or refuse to take you where you want to go (a familiar experience to anyone trying to get home to the east side of the city from the west side). Not only can you count on Celdran — he’ll give you a wake-up call.

“I’m doing this because of the holy spirit,” he says, by which he means the smile on a paying customer’s face.


 
NO-PROSTITUTE ZONE
Honey, I lost the car

D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey has declared two “prostitution-free zones” at 13th and L streets N.W. and 10th and M streets N.W. The zones, which last for 10 days, allow cops “to disperse groups of two or more individuals congregating for the purpose of prostitution or prostitution-related activity.”

“It was getting to be a pretty visible and unattractive problem,” says Charles Reed,  chairman of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission who moved to the area with his wife 30 years ago. The problem had been getting worse, Reed says, partly because the area is gentrifying, and having lots of construction workers fixing up condos makes for an extra-large pool of customers.

Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans says the problem hasn’t actually gotten worse: “Prostitution’s been rampant in my ward since I took office in 1991,” he says. Various measures were used to stifle the outdoor sex market, but none more effective than a law that allowed police to seize Johns’ vehicles, dubbed the “Honey, I lost the car” law.

It was too effective; the Supreme Court struck down the law, saying the punishment didn’t fit the crime. But it was resurrected in May legislation by the D.C. Council: vehicle seizure is back, along with increased fines.

“That’s a real serious deterrent, it seems to me,” says Reed. Imagine having to explain how you lost the car to your wife.

The Metropolitan Police Department’s press release stresses that the zones target only “brazen street walkers” and their pimps. Other nuisance behaviors such as distributing campaign literature, petitioning, and proselytizing are still legal within zone boundaries.