The 'Delicate Balance' of Security and Privacy at Philadelphia's City Hall

A $6.5 million City Hall security project, which will require visitors to the upper floors of the old building to be identified, photographed and logged in to a database, has been quietly moving forward and should be operating by April, city officials say.

Although officials point to the need for protection in a post-9/11 world, several activist leaders, civil libertarians, and some members of City Council view the plans with trepidation.

"It's a concern for me," said Carol Hemingway, president of Philadelphia ACORN, an activist group. "I'm going to be in a database somewhere. Who has access to it? What is the purpose? What are you going to do with that information?"

The project calls for upper-floor visitors, who now have access through many stairwells and elevator banks, to be funneled through a security station at the building's northeast corner to be photographed. Portable metal detectors would be available for use, if necessary, said Richard Tustin, head of the city's capital program office, which is overseeing construction.

Visitors to heavily used agencies on the first floor, such as the Department of Records, could enter the building through central doors, avoiding the security command center. But anyone wishing to visit the mayor's office, a Council member, a Council session, the marriage-license bureau, or other upstairs city offices would have to present photo identification and submit to being photographed by the city.

The project also calls for installation of networked, digital surveillance cameras throughout the building, in its courtyard, and around the surrounding sidewalks and building apron. Images from those cameras could also be warehoused.

Mayor Street, talking to reporters after a King Day of Service news conference this month, called the need for such procedures "unfortunate" but "a product of the times in which we live."

The mayor said no actual threat prompted the project, but he argued that Philadelphia was one of the last cities in the country without "21st-century" security procedures.

"I don't think we can conduct ourselves out of sync with the idea that things can happen," Street said, adding: "I do believe there's a point beyond which you do not go" with security procedures in a public building.

"If it doesn't work well, we'll make adjustments," Street said.

Not all cities are going this route.

"You can walk into City Hall in Chicago," said Jennifer Martinez, a spokeswoman for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. "We have demonstrations all the time. We see City Hall as a public building with access."

Chicago does use video cameras around City Hall that are networked into a growing citywide web of surveillance cameras programmed into the city's 911 emergency system, Martinez said.

An informal survey of several large East Coast cities indicated that metal detectors were favored to screen visitors to major public buildings.

Atlanta, for instance, requires City Hall visitors to pass through metal detectors. For a few months after 9/11, a city spokeswoman said, visitors had to show identification.

The Philadelphia plans date from the period immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Joe Martz, then city managing director, called for a security plan encompassing City Hall, the Municipal Services Building, and the city offices at One Parkway Place.

A dozen projects resulted, including the photo-identification system, which is already in place at the Municipal Services Building and at One Parkway. Once City Hall is online, a database will incorporate visitors to all three buildings.

Tustin characterized this as a convenience to visitors: One photograph would provide access to any of the buildings.

Convenient or not, Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell said, the project is troubling.

The system could intimidate many of her neediest constituents, she said.

"I have clients looking for IDs," she said. "I have clients with mental-health issues... . You have some people who don't register to vote because they don't want to be located or they have some kind of record."

Blackwell said she had sought information on the security plans but had not received any answers from the mayor's office.

"I find it sad - I find it frightening - that this is where we're heading," she said. "At least I can fight for those people who are coming to me just for services."

Joan Schlotterbeck, the commissioner of public property, who will head up operating the new system, said that procedures were still being weighed and that no actual operating plan had been proposed, much less approved.

"It will be a work in progress," she said. "I think we'll work through the issues."

She said it had not been decided how long images in the database would be stored. She indicated that no law enforcement agency or city agency (other than the Department of Public Property) would have access to the system, but she could not say whether that would change.

There was "a delicate balance" in making sure that City Hall was both secure and public, Schlotterbeck said.

For activists outside the system, the plans raise some fundamental questions.

"In general, I wonder if we will be actually safer or if this will just make it that much more difficult to redress grievances or address the government," said John Dodds of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. "I don't know if it's about terrorism or just people protecting themselves from the disenfranchised."

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said they, too, were troubled.

"It seems a very strange idea to have that amount of security around your city administration," said Mary Catherine Roper, ACLU staff attorney. "You've got to wonder: What is the purpose of this database of bad pictures?"

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