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Smile! You’re (Not) On Camera

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eye on the news

Smile! You’re (Not) On Camera

Last week’s subway attack prompted an outcry about malfunctioning cameras underground, but other reforms would better help keep New Yorkers safe. April 21, 2022
New York
Public safety

It took 30 hours for Frank James to be placed in handcuffs after he terrorized Brooklyn N train riders on April 12, wounding ten but miraculously killing none. It took less time for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to face questions about surveillance-camera malfunctions at the 36th Street station, where the attack occurred, and at the 25th Street station, where James is believed to have fled. Though the MTA said that the cameras were operating, it admitted that fiber-optic problems, reported two days earlier, prevented the images from being relayed to either the MTA or the New York City Police Department. Yet for all the media attention given to non-transmitting cameras, they likely played only a minor role in James’s escape.

A dispute broke out in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Mayor Eric Adams set off the controversy when he said that the investigation was hampered by a camera “malfunction.” “We know there was a problem with the camera at that particular station,” he said. “We’re investigating if there were any video footage there.” James Essig, the NYPD chief of detectives, also blamed cameras at three key locations—James’s entry point; the 36th Street station platform; and the 25th Street station, where he may have exited—and suggested that New Yorkers should be angry that not every security camera was working, noting that they pay high taxes and fares to ride the trains. Janno Lieber, the MTA’s chief executive officer, countered, saying that of the nearly 10,000 cameras in the subway system, almost 600 were on the Brooklyn portion of the N line. Attempting to minimize the spat, the MTA’s Tim Minton said that the cameras were recording but not transmitting, and John Miller, deputy NYPD commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, called it an overstatement to suggest that the malfunction slowed the investigation. Yet none of this stopped the city council from demanding an audit of the underground cameras, and Congress is demanding answers from the MTA as well.

For its part, the NYPD sought to quash claims about its own mishaps. An officer had asked bystanders to call 911 because his portable radio did not work on the platform, but Ken Corey, chief of department, said that this owed to “user error” rather than technological failure—officers must use a different radio frequency underground than at ground level. That may be true, but officer complaints about transmission from platforms are not new. The problem played a large role in a 1984 controversy surrounding the death of Transit Police Officer Irma Lozada, who chased a robbery suspect from the subway onto the street and lost communication with her partner. Fixing the problem was touted as a benefit of the 1995 consolidation of the NYPD and the Transit Police.

In the press, the camera issue quickly overtook interest in other elements of the case. James’s racist social media rants flew mostly under the radar. James also posted threats against Mayor Adams and railed against New York City’s mental-health system, prompting conjecture that mental-health advocates would face scrutiny. Yet the city’s Democratic Socialists of America wing, led by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, continued to warn about the “bloated presence” of police in the subways.

Functioning cameras may not have helped as much as the hullaballoo would suggest. Police and MTA personnel know that the vast majority of cameras in the subway system are located near turnstiles, with none on trains and few on platforms. In a 2011 Transportation Research Board study on video surveillance in transit systems, I found that few large systems, including New York’s, had in-vehicle or on-platform cameras. The situation hasn’t changed much since, as the technology and the costs required to retrofit vehicles and platforms for cameras tends to be prohibitive. Such granular surveillance exists primarily on newer, street-running light-rail systems, in which cameras are installed during construction and vehicles can be ordered with built-in cameras. But even in these systems, images are used primarily for follow-up investigations. Few cameras record in “real time,” i.e., get monitored by observers authorized to dispatch police or other personnel immediately. The majority of the cameras record images that can be viewed only later, during investigations.

The MTA’s blurring of its camera network’s costs and benefits has been a recurring issue in New York. In 2010, about half of the few existing cameras suffered from software or construction problems. A state audit released in 2018 found that all 223 cameras across a set of ten subway stations were inoperable, that about 31 percent of planned checks had not occurred, and that more than 25 percent of the more than 9,000 camera-related calls to the maintenance division had not been addressed in the three-day target period.

This was all supposed to change. In September 2021, the MTA announced that cameras had been installed in all 472 stations. The agency noted that some allowed personnel to spot suspicious packages and activities that required a response, but it did not specify numbers or locations. Rather, the press release touted an almost 21 percent decline in felonies and close to a 30 percent increase in arrests through the end of August 2021, though these figures predated the new cameras.

Would real-time cameras have hastened James’s capture? By the time James exited the N train and is believed to have run onto the R train with other patrons, he would have looked just like another masked, panicked patron. The evidence he left behind, including a cellphone, a bank card in his name, and keys to a van rented in his name, was sufficient to make him a person of interest and then a suspect.

And existing cameras have not proved a panacea. So far in 2022, major felonies in the subway have increased 68 percent, including robberies (72 percent), felony assaults (28 percent), and grand larcenies (110 percent). Transit crime has exploded around the country. Defund-the-police demands; an increase in homeless people using transit facilities for shelter; ridership drops that make it easier for the homeless to take up residency; and the reluctance of transit systems to enforce fare evasion and quality-of-life-offenses, such as public urination, drunkenness, drug use, and vandalism—all contribute. (The reluctance to enforce fare regulations stems from studies in Brooklyn, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., that find black riders receive a percentage of citations that outpaces their percentage of overall riders, though these studies don’t consider different levels of fare compliance.)

City leaders had sounded the alarm about subway crime before James’s attack. In February, Adams announced a subway safety plan that he hoped would counter riders’ concerns by removing homeless individuals from the system. Immediate concerns that James’s April 12 terrorist act would derail the plan have not been borne out. More than 3 million people rode the subway the day of the attack, down about 10 percent from the week before, and about 52 percent from that date in 2019, but ridership didn’t plummet over the next two days. Meantime, speculation about weapons-detection systems at each subway entrance seems impractical. No estimate exists of how much staffing would be required to monitor the equipment, nor is it clear how many legally armed individuals ride the subway and could be stopped.

Safety, homelessness, and untreated mental illness rank as top issues for New Yorkers. Rather than invest millions in technology that may not function any better or worse than existing surveillance systems, Mayor Adams should rely on his knowledge as a transit cop and continue investing dollars in improving mental-health services, including making better use of Kendra’s Law. And after decades of empty promises from his predecessors, he should finally invest in radio communications that will allow cops assigned to subway platforms to patrol them without fear that they will be unable to communicate with colleagues stationed above ground.

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

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