On Camera: Surveillance In Transit, Schools

Print More
First seen on the U.S-Mexican border, the NYPD now deploys Sky Watch towers as part of its crime-fighting efforts.

Photo by: Ali Winston

First seen on the U.S-Mexican border, the NYPD now deploys Sky Watch towers as part of its crime-fighting efforts.

In less than a decade, New York City has come to rival London as the world’s surveillance capital. A walk through Harlem could quickly confirm this—every step you take is captured on video. Passing by the General Grant Houses on 125th Street, you are picked up by police-operated cameras on the exterior of the red brick towers. Continuing eastward, a sign emblazoned with the slogan “NYPD Security Camera” catches your eye at the intersection with frederick Douglass Boulevard. fifteen feet above the street, two opaque globes attached to a blue-and-white box stenciled with the police department’s insignia look down on you.

Walk six blocks north on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to 131st Street, where an NYPD Sky Watch booth with tinted windows and surveillance cameras sits on risers across the street from the St. Nicholas Houses in rapidly gentrifying central Harlem. Return to 125th Street, and descend into the 2/3 subway station on Lenox Avenue. As you swipe your Metrocard and pass through the turnstile, you are picked up by a string of now-familiar globes, part of the MTA’s Passenger Identification System currently being installed throughout the subway —to combat terrorism, according to the MTA. Although security cameras have been used by private and public entities for decades, they have proliferated exponentially since September 11.

A 1998 New York Civil Liberties Union survey identified 2,397 surveillance cameras at street level in Manhattan. In 2005, another NYCLU survey of Lower Manhattan, Greenwich Village, Chinatown and central Harlem found 4,468 cameras in those four districts alone. In the private sector, cameras are installed in residential buildings and a wide variety of businesses. Estimates of the total number of cameras citywide range up to 40,000. Government has been a main proponent of this expansion, with technophile Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly the most outspoken advocates of expanded video surveillance throughout New York City. “In this day and age, if you think that cameras aren’t watching you all the time, you are very naive,” Bloomberg said during an October 2007 visit to London. “We live in a dangerous world, and people want to have security cameras.” for his part, Kelly promotes video surveillance as an investigative tool and a safeguard against terrorism. “We’ve got an eye toward prevention,” Kelly says. “I like cameras because they act as a deterrent.” The largest public surveillance initiatives implemented so far in the city are run by New York City’s housing authority, police department, department of transportation and department of education, as well as the MTA. Nationally, the Department of Homeland Security is promoting the use of surveillance technology by doling out millions of grant dollars to municipalities. Since 2003, DHS has handed out $23 billion to local governments for equipment and counterterrorism training; the department will not say how much goes toward cameras. Major defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin have tapped into this cash flow, shifting their focus from Cold War weapons systems to electronic monitoring. Technology companies like IBM and Genetec are also developing a raft of “smart camera” software, such as facial and behavioral recognition programs—which identify people and suspicious activity using databases and algorithms that can be overlaid onto existing digital camera systems.

The expansion of surveillance cameras troubles some. “We’re seeing a whole new wave of video surveillance,” says Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Liberty and Technology program. “The current wave is the efforts to tie together public and private surveillance, which creates the potential for a pervasive surveillance system to track people from block to block.” Other concerns center around the use of surveillance to stifle political dissent by targeting and tracking demonstrators, and law enforcement’s tendency to subject minorities and low-income citizens to higher scrutiny.

City housing projects have long served as an incubator for surveillance programs. In 1976, NYCHA initiated an experimental $90,000 closed-circuit television program in three buildings of the Bronxdale houses in the Soundview section of the South Bronx as a deterrent to rising levels of crime. The cameras were to be monitored on private televisions by residents, who were encouraged to report any suspicious activity to housing police. An independent 1978 study questioned the efficacy and cost of the pilot program, which lost its funding and was discontinued shortly thereafter.

Twenty years later, the NYPD reintroduced video surveillance to public housing. Thirty-six Video Interactive Patrol Enhanced Response (VIPER) cameras were installed throughout the hallways, lobbies, elevators, entrances and exteriors of Harlem’s General Grant Houses in the summer of 1997. Police officers assigned to the VIPER unit monitored live footage around the clock in a designated room in each building. Following a 20 percent drop in crime over five months, the program was expanded to NYCHA buildings across the city. By 2002, the city had installed 3,160 VIPER digital cameras in 235 buildings at a cost of $33.8 million to NYCHA. System maintenance, an additional $305,500 a year—or approximately $1,300 per building—is paid by the NYPD.

A separate, smaller-scale closed-circuit television system for public housing funded directly by City Council appropriations was established in 2004. As of 2006, more than a thousand of these cameras had been installed at 28 housing developments, and NYCHA is working to install more than a thousand more at 33 other sites. This secondary system is not monitored live, but is used for crime deterrent and investigative purposes.

“People are constantly asking for more cameras,” NYCHA spokesman Howard Marder says. “We do everything we can to ensure people have a safe place to live.” NYCHA touts VIPER cameras as an effective crime-fighting tool: Since VIPER’s implementation, 11 years ago, the housing authority has credited more than 2,800 arrests to VIPER.

There is support for VIPER from many NYCHA tenants. Kywanni Johnson, 18, a resident of the General Grant Houses, says the cameras can be a comforting presence. “It makes me feel safe when the cameras are right there,” he says. However, Johnson does not think cameras have helped reduce crime in the Grant Homes and worries that police could misuse VIPER by monitoring residents’ private lives. Johnson reflects a larger dichotomy: As suspicious as people are about the idea of surveillance, they are hungry for tangible safety measures.

While the NYPD has regulations concerning the use of the videotape it captures, there are concerns about whether those rules are obeyed. In 2003, for example, VIPER footage of a young man’s suicide in the Morris Houses in the Bronx was leaked to a pornographic website.

When it comes to deterring crime, no system is foolproof. This March, two women were raped in Brownsville’s Van Dyke Houses by the same man. Both instances took place off-camera and thus went undetected by officers monitoring live video. Two officers were later disciplined after lying about patrolling the complex. The Brownsville rapes dovetail with one theory held by some academics and law enforcement officers that video surveillance displaces crime rather than deters it. A University of California at Berkeley analysis of San Francisco’s police cameras found that video surveillance reduced the number of homicides within 250 feet of the devices, but that the number of killings spiked outside that range. According to a former high-ranking NYPD officer, VIPER served as a model for subsequent NYPD video systems. In 2006, the department rolled out a $9 million network of 505 street cameras covering 253 locations. The cameras are monitored by police officers in a control center.

In 2006 the NYPD introduced five mobile Sky Watch towers equipped with video cameras, gunshot-detection sensors and spotlights. The towers, also utilized by the Department of Homeland Security on the U.S.-Mexico border, rotate in and out of neighborhoods and high-profile locations like stadiums. Camera-equipped NYPD helicopters regularly patrol New York City’s airspace and waterways. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, police monitored demonstrators from above with a borrowed fuji blimp equipped with high-powered cameras and audio sensors. The department came under criticism for at least one highly publicized incident, when a man and women sharing an intimate moment on a rooftop were filmed at length by an NYPD helicopter monitoring nearby protests. NYPD officials say video taken from street cameras is kept for 30 to 45 days and then erased.

Of all the NYPD’s surveillance programs, the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI), or Ring of Steel, has attracted the most attention. A three-year counterterrorism project modeled on London’s extensive CCTV network, the initiative is now supposed to cost $106 million (up from $90 million last July) to install, with an additional $8 million in yearly maintenance. It will involve 3,000 cameras equipped with advanced behavior-recognition software, as well as more than 100 license-plate-recognition cameras, extra officers and new vehicle barriers placed throughout 1.7 square miles of southernmost Manhattan. Kelly and Bloomberg justify the program as a means of defending the city’s all-important financial industry. “This area is very critical to the economic lifeblood of this nation,” Kelly said last July. “We want to make it less vulnerable.” The camera software will be IBM’s Smart Surveillance System. Also used by authorities in Beijing and Chicago, this system uses computerized analysis to index digital footage and issue alerts when suspicious patterns are detected. Buildings in the covered area will have to submit blueprints to the NYPD—so the police can consult the plans during an emergency response—and will be required to transmit live feeds from their cameras and sensors to the initiative’s headquarters. The NYPD is considering whether to install biohazard detectors and facial-recognition software as part of the system. To date, 250 cameras are in place, along with at least one license plate reader. But there’s reason to be skeptical of the Ring of Steel’s ability to deter terrorism. Indeed, the London system upon which it is modeled did not prevent the suicide attacks of July 2005, in which 52 people died. Even when it comes to street crime, the deterrent effect of London’s 10,000-camera, $391 million, 24/7 CCTV system is in doubt, since the video footage is rarely successful at identifying criminals: The London borough of Hackney has had the most success at using video to solve crimes, and it only finds perpetrators in 22 percent of the crimes of which it has footage.

Meanwhile, NYCLU staff attorney Matt Faiella criticizes the lack of public input or guidelines about how video and data collected by New York’s Ring of Steel sensors will be handled. There are further questions about the use of footage by private businesses, which will control 2,000 of the initiative’s 3,000 cameras. “We need more forethought when we’re installing cameras and allowing access to any images captured by cameras,” Faiella says. “It is changing what people think of as private life.” The NYCLU is appealing the NYPD’s recent denial of a freedom of Information Law request concerning the details of LMSI.

New York’s public transit systems are also under constant surveillance, a reflection of official anxiety about the vulnerability of train and bus systems to attacks like those in Madrid and London. In August 2005, Lockheed Martin won a $212 million MTA contract to deploy smart cameras equipped with motion and perimeter sensors and behavioral-recognition technology throughout New York’s subway stations. More than 3,000 of these passenger identification, or PID, cameras will be installed at about 140 stations, at a cost of $52 million in MTA capital funds, DHS grants and elected officials’ member items.

The MTA’s surveillance efforts are not limited to subway stations. Approximately 400 buses are equipped with surveillance cameras, an effort begun in 2006 at a cost of $5.2 million a year. In April, NYC Transit announced a pilot program to test surveillance cameras in the interior of subway cars—ostensibly to deter vandalism—with a view to expanding coverage across the system. New York City streets are also monitored by a network of government cameras, aimed at increasing safety and improving traffic flow.

The city’s department of transportation maintains 400 traffic cameras throughout the city that are monitored at a control center in Long Island City. Another 100 red-light cameras located at intersections have, since 1993, captured the license plates of vehicles that disregard traffic signals. footage from DOT cameras, which cost $8.4 million per year to maintain, is retained indefinitely in digital format.

Meanwhile, some New York City public school students have been under the electronic eye every school day since 2004. By the end of 2008, more than 300 middle and high schools in 130 buildings will be equipped with about 6,000 cameras belonging to the Department of Education’s $120 million Internet Protocol Digital Video Surveillance system, intended to reduce violence in public schools. The cameras are watched by school safety agents, who are NYPD employees. The cameras have not had a clear impact on security; school crime statistics have fluctuated since the cameras arrived. Meanwhile, some parents, students and civil libertarians complain that cameras contribute to a prison-like atmosphere inside schools. Technical difficulties have cropped up in retaining footage and have complicated student disciplinary hearings. Parents and lawyers claim the DOE has been slow in turning over video evidence in criminal cases.

Recently, the DOE appears to have pulled back. Since the beginning of 2008, the School Construction Authority has not put any new camera installation contracts out to bid. Sources say the NYPD has asked the DOE for a memorandum of understanding that would allow uniformed NYPD officers access to live footage from the school cameras, but the DOE has refused.