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

Safeguards worry some citizens as staff seeks to provide protection, access control


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.

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