Will New Subway Car Cameras Do More Harm Than Good?

Issue 201

Rebeca Ibarra Oct 28, 2014

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will place New York City subway riders under increasing surveillance in the coming decade.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has championed the idea of installing cameras inside subway cars for months, saying he would like the New York Police Department to someday be able to monitor all 6,325 subway cars in real time. On Oct 1, Public Advocate Letitia James released a letter from the MTA in which it committed to installing cameras on 904 R211-class subway cars that it expects to order as part of its 2015-2019 capital plan. The agency had previously ordered 300 other trains that will be capable of having cameras installed inside of them.

The cameras are likely to cost millions of dollars to install and will not be able to provide police real-time images, at least for the foreseeable future. Surveillance supporters hope the cameras will reduce crime in the subway system, including sex crimes against women, which, according to a statement from the Public Advocate’s office, occurs mostly on trains. However, critics worry that expanded surveillance inside subway cars will be used to target minor “quality of life” offenders such as the homeless and subway performers.

The MTA has previously sought to install closed-circuit television cameras to monitor its stations, tunnels and platforms. In 2005, the MTA signed a $205 million contract with Lockheed Martin for a “state-of-the-art electronic security program” that would operate throughout the system. However, the contract was terminated in 2009 and the MTA and Lockheed Martin remain entangled in a costly legal battle over who is to blame for that fiasco.

When asked if the plan to have trains outfitted with cameras risked going the way of the Lockheed Martin contract, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz told The Indypendent the project had “completely different infrastructure and scope,” though he did not elaborate further.

Ortiz did not comment on whether the cameras in R211 subway cars will someday be integrated into a security network that can be monitored in real time, or on the expected cost of installing such a complex system. “One step at a time,” he said. “We are focused on getting a system in place for the R211s.”

The MTA, the largest public transportation agency in the nation, would follow in the footsteps of the Chicago Transit Authority. In 2011, the CTA embarked on an ambitious plan of installing more than 1,800 cameras in five months, spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski told The Indypendent. They outfitted 834 subway cars with multiple cameras, some of which have live feeds viewed from a control center in the city’s Office of Emergency Management.

The CTA released a report this June saying violent crimes on buses, trains and station platforms had declined “more than 34 percent compared with the first half of 2013.” Robberies, vandalism and thefts, the most common crimes on the CTA, according to Hosinski, had also dropped by double digits compared to last year.

“The cameras have been a factor,” Hosinski said. “They have helped identify patterns and pick up on incidents that go unreported [and] have become an invaluable tool for police and investigations.”

Although the CTA operates the nation’s second largest public transportation system, it is still much smaller than the MTA’s New York City Transit arm, with 1,356 rail cars compared to New York City’s 6,325; and an annual ridership of 229.12 million, compared to New York City’s 1.708 billion.

City Councilmember Jimmy Vacca (D-Bronx), who has long advocated increased surveillance in trains, told The Indypendent that cameras would be “an important tool to fight crime.” He said “cameras are proactive and are also a deterrent.”

Limited Value

Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College professor of sociology and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics, disputes this, saying, “Real-time observation of thousands of subway cars is never going to be feasible.”

The cameras might be helpful in “catching someone later,” Vitale said. “But there’s no real evidence of cameras having a deterrent effect, like most would like you to believe.”

A 2006 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union also concluded that cameras can help in police investigations, but play no significant role in stopping crime. According to the report, “cameras cannot prevent bad things from happening — and the money spent on them may, in fact, divert resources from more effective crime prevention strategies and tactics.”

There are already 4,000 cameras placed throughout the system, Jim Gannon, director of communications for Transit Workers Union Local 100, told The Indypendent. Most of them go unmonitored. “They’re only used if something happens,” he said.

Gannon said the expense seemed unnecessary “if there isn’t going to be the capability of real-time” monitoring. However, he said, “There’s no reason for us to oppose that as long as whatever is being compiled doesn’t go to some digital black hole.”

Vitale also expressed concern about how the MTA and the NYPD would handle the footage. “One of my main concerns about the use of this kind of widespread videotaping is what happens with the data,” Vitale said. “This data should not be used for just creating intelligence files on people when there’s no evidence of a crime being committed.”

‘Broken Windows’ Goes Underground

The subway system’s rate of serious felonies has decreased by 85 percent from 1990 to 2013, according to a Daily News op-ed penned this summer by NYPD Transit Chief Joseph Fox. Nonetheless, there has been an increased crackdown on low- level subway offenses this year. “Each illegal panhandler, peddler, or fare evader that is left unchecked can have a negative impact on the sense of safety and security of subway riders,” Fox wrote. “That doesn’t sit well with us.”

Increased surveillance could result in increased targeting of minor offenses. Like Ray Kelly before him, Bratton is “exploring and increasing the use of technology,” Vitale said. “He is also doubling down on ‘quality-of-life’ and ‘broken windows’ policing. That’s very troubling.”

According to Vitale, Bratton has managed to convince people that the NYPD’s “broken windows” policy of targeting minor offenses helps prevent more serious crimes from taking place.

“It defies logic,” Vitale said, “to believe that getting rid of all the panhandlers could bring down crime.”

Nearly 2,000 homeless people inhabit the subway system. They are more likely, Vitale added, to encounter a police officer than a social worker and bear the brunt of “quality-of-life” policing.

“The [homeless] population is figuratively and literally going underground,” said Dave Subren, a member of the advocacy group Picture the Homeless (PTH). He said this has alarmed the city’s increasingly gentrified population. “Increased surveillance is only there to appease the public,” Subren concluded.

Busting The Buskers

Subway performers have also been targeted by “broken windows” policing.

Matthew Christian moved to New York from Vermont in 2011 and was excited to play his violin underground, only to be arrested by an undercover police officer his second time performing at the Spring Street station on the C line.

Christian, a member of the arts advocacy group BuskNY, said there has been a rise in the ticketing and arresting of artists despite the fact that performing in the subway has been legal since 1985. The violinist was surprised when, instead of noticing a decline in unlawful arrests with the new administration, “as soon as January rolled around we started hearing of more people being confronted by police.”

More officers are being sent into the subway to combat “low level violations” while being unfamiliar with MTA rules and regulations, Christian said. “The costs of implementing these rules, the expenditure that’s necessary to arrest someone dancing on the train, to hold him for two nights and to process all the court work, is a huge amount of [taxpayers’] money for quite a meaningless goal.”

As far as cameras go, Christian told The Indypendent that while the NYPD’s stated policy objective is not to arrest more musicians, the performing community remains skeptical of police intentions. The irony of the crackdown is not lost on him.

“Subway performance is one of the most appreciated elements of the transit experience,” Christian said. “In fighting quality-of-life offenses [they] have succeeded in decreasing the quality of life.”

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