First the “Ring of Steel” video surveillance project was to cover Lower Manhattan, home to the financial district that’s seen as key to the regional, national and international economy. Then Police Commissioner Ray Kelly mentioned this March that a similar regime will cover Midtown Manhattan, too. Then Kelly announced recently that he sees video surveillance soon covering the entire borough, with the potential assistance of federal Homeland Security grants.

This is the latest phase in New York City’s evolution into one of the most heavily-monitored cities in the world. Past estimates of the number of private and public video cameras range up to 40,000 – only London and the Chinese city of Shenzen have more electronic eyes watching public streets.

At the NYPD’s budget hearing before City Council on May 19, Kelly made reference to the “Manhattan Security Initiative” in response to questions from hearing co-chair Peter Vallone, Jr. of Queens about federal funding for cameras. After the hearing, Kelly declared himself a proponent of video surveillance and made clear his desire to expand camera coverage throughout Manhattan. “We definitely want cameras throughout the city,” he said.

The NYPD has applied for $75 million in federal funds from the Homeland Security Grant Program. Of that, $21 million is intended for the Midtown Manhattan Security Initiative, a network of integrated video cameras that would monitor the entire area from 34th to 59th Streets, river to river. Another $3.7 million in grant money would be used to purchase 500 more cameras for the NYPD’s Argus system of wireless cameras.

The Argus name comes from Greek mythology, referring to a giant with a hundred eyes. According to Kelly, the 500 new Argus cameras will be deployed throughout the city’s eight borough commands, including the area to be covered by the Midtown Manhattan Security Initiative.

However, these cameras and the Midtown program are wholly dependent on federal funding. “We need federal funds to go ahead with the Manhattan Security Initiative,” said Kelly. “If we don’t get it, we’d have to defer [the project].”

This most recent expansion of NYPD video surveillance comes at a time when the department is losing personnel through attrition and does not have funds to hire replacement officers. At the end of this month, the NYPD will have 35,571 officers, a number expected to decrease to 34,304 by June 2010. As a result of the city’s estimated budget gap of $1.1 billion, the department has canceled the January 2010 academy class, postponed the construction of four new precincts and the new police academy in Queens until 2013, and slashed its overtime budget for FY 2010 by $21 million, to $379 million.

Increasing the NYPD’s reliance on technology while reducing the overall size of the police force is not the ideal situation, says Councilman Vallone, who chairs the Public Safety Committee. “Police officers are always more important than technology,” he said “You can’t rely too heavily on one or the other – there’s no substitute for boots on the ground.”

Vallone supports video cameras as both a crimefighting and counterrorism tool, and fully supports the expansion of the Ring of Steel to all of Manhattan. Due to budget problems, however, Vallone warned that some of Kelly’s initiatives, such as the Argus cameras, might be on the chopping block because of the city’s deepening budget crisis.

Federal grant money is largely intended for funding equipment purchases, technology upgrades and intelligence operations. Through the COPS Hiring Recovery Program, part of the federal stimulus package, the NYPD will hire 300 officers with federal money over the course of three years. “That’s a drop in the bucket,” said Vallone.

The NYPD did not respond to City Limits’ request for further information on the location, funding or software used by the Argus cameras.

News of an expanded police video surveillance program did not go over well with the New York Civil Liberties Union, a longstanding opponent to the Ring of Steel and widespread closed-circuit TV monitoring. “The NYPD has been very successful in using legitimate concerns about terrorism to justify sweeping initiatives that have nothing to do with terrorism,” said Chris Dunn, the NYCLU’s associate legal director. “Commissioner Kelly has placed a particular emphasis on intelligence gathering, and unfortunately that is turning into a program of universal surveillance of law-abiding New Yorkers.” Dunn added that the expansion of the Ring of Steel to cover all of Manhattan without any apparent checks and balances was “a recipe for abuse.”

The NYCLU has filed a lawsuit against the NYPD over the department’s refusal to respond to a Freedom of Information Law request to release documents related to the Ring of Steel. Dunn said he also plans to file suit against the federal government over a Freedom of Information Act request for information about video surveillance in New York City, made due to the partial funding by the Department of Homeland Security.

Widespread questions remain about the efficacy of video cameras to combat street crime or terrorism. Numerous studies in the United States and Britain have demonstrated that cameras do not have a deterrent effect on violent street crime. Their after-the-fact investigative or prosecutorial efficacy is not always clear either: In one high-profile example, the suspect remains at large in the bombing of a U.S. Army recruiting center in Times Square last March, which was captured on video.

Prof. Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is another skeptic of expanding video surveillance. “How much demonstrated value is there in some of these technologies?” O’Donnell said. “They’re very expensive and they shift resources as the department is shrinking.”

The NYPD’s reliance on federal money, O’Donnell believes, is skewing the NYPD’s priorities away from street policing. O’Donnell, who was a visiting professor at the Bramshill Police College in England, cites widespread misgivings about video surveillance amongst British law enforcement as a cautionary example for the NYPD.

“The rank-and-file officers [in Britain] have had great doubts,” said O’Donnell. “Especially with terrorism, it’s hard to tease out the value of these programs.”

– Ali Winston