Big Brother is watching
Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Can we tap technology to tackle crime without giving up all our privacy?
ON THE DAY of the Boston Marathon two years ago, before the bombs and the blood, Ed Davis was taking in the race from the viewing stand at the Copley Square finish line. Being a cop as well as a spectator, however, he couldn’t help but ponder things cops think about these days, especially if they are the top police official in a city holding a major international sporting event.
“I was sitting in the bleachers that morning watching all the people with cameras,” says Davis. “And it occurred to me: If anything happens here, there’s going to be a record of it. You can’t walk three feet without somebody picking you up in the background of a still shot that they’re taking or video they’re taking.”
Something, of course, did happen. And within 20 minutes of the bomb blasts on that Monday two Aprils ago, says Davis, who was then the city’s police commissioner, the order went out to try to locate and secure any photo or video evidence showing the area during the time leading up to the explosions.
By Wednesday, authorities had images from cameras of nearby businesses showing the two men they believed were responsible for the blasts that killed three people and wounded 260. After an internal debate among local and federal law enforcement officials, the decision was made on Thursday to publicly release the images. Within hours, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began what would be the bloody denouement to the region’s week of terror, allegedly shooting to death MIT police officer Sean Collier, carjacking a man and his Mercedes SUV, and leading police on a chase to Watertown that ended in a wild shootout that left Tamerlan Tsarnaev dead and his brother, who was found hiding several hours later, badly wounded.
Although the suspects were not identified from the surveillance video, its release is clearly what “activated” them, says Davis. “They realized it would just be a matter of time before they were caught.”
The images that were released that week — along with graphic scenes recorded on a camera right in front of one of the blast sites that have not been shared publicly — are sure to figure in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial, which is now playing out in federal court in Boston. The Marathon may be the highest-profile crime in recent years in which video surveillance played a crucial role. But it is by no means the only one.
Hardly a day goes by without a news report of a crime, from the mundane to the murderous, for which there is a surveillance image, with police often seeking public assistance in identifying suspects. It all has the effect of making it seem like technology is helping us get the upper hand on the bad guys, and often it is.
Its role in helping to solve cases after a crime occurs seems evident. Rigorous evidence of video surveillance’s crime prevention powers, however, isn’t overwhelming, where it exists at all. Meanwhile, civil liberties advocates say the unchecked proliferation of surveillance video, like the potential to poke into our online practices, is yet another way we are being tracked and our privacy is disappearing.
It’s a sometimes uneasy balance that we’re constantly seeking today, trying to harness the upside of technology without getting overrun by it.
EYES ON LONDON
The network of cameras was regarded as crucial to identifying the suicide bombers responsible for four explosions set off on London’s transit system in July 2005, and with helping to thwart a planned follow-up attack several weeks later. The bombings killed 52 and injured more than 700.
Davis, the former Boston police commissioner, was doing consulting work in London just after the bombings and met with the head of the city’s metropolitan police. “He said unequivocally that if it was not for the cameras they never would have solved that bombing,” says Davis. That lesson stayed with Davis. When he found himself in the same shoes eight years later, Davis says he had one immediate thought: “If we’re going to solve this Marathon bombing, we’ve got to concentrate on the video.”
While its role in combating major terror attacks was the initial rationale for England’s all-in plunge into the world of surveillance video, the 1993 kidnapping of 2-year-old James Bulger, caught on surveillance video at a British shopping mall, may have done more than anything to solidify the country’s embrace of cameras on every corner.
Paul Evans, another former Boston police commissioner, got to see the UK fervor for surveillance video up-close. From 2003 to 2007, Evans ran England’s Police and Crime Standards Directorate. Whenever he visited a local police department, Evans says, a look at their closed-circuit television monitoring system was invariably the first thing on the tour.
“Every time I’d visit a force, they’d insist that I had to go see their CCTV,” he says. “Big Brother was there, and Big Brother was there in a big way,” says Evans, citing an estimate that the typical Londoner was captured on video 220 times each day.
“They saw CCTV as a panacea,” says Evans, who says he wasn’t convinced. “Was it incredibly valuable in solving high-profile crimes? Absolutely. It’s probably debatable as to whether it reduced crime.”
Brandon Welsh, a Northeastern University criminologist, has carried out what may be the broadest examination of surveillance video and crime prevention. Welsh coauthored a 2009 book, Making Public Places Safer: Surveillance and Crime Prevention, that pooled the results from all available, rigorously conducted studies of the question.
“On aggregate, we found that there is a modest, significant effect of cameras in reducing crime,” says Welsh. However, much of the overall 16 percent reduction in crime from the combined results of 41 studies came from prevention of vehicle crime in parking lots and garages. There was less evidence of its effect on violent crime.
The book examined several crime-fighting interventions. It turned out that enhanced street lighting “on aggregate was slightly more effective in public places than cameras,” says Welsh, with lighting credited with reducing crime by 21 percent.
Welsh and his coauthor, David Farrington of Cambridge University, were commissioned in 2000 by Britain’s Home Office to carry out the research. When their initial 2002 report found that something as basic as enhanced street lighting appeared to be more effective in reducing crime than surveillance video, “the British government was not keen to release the studies,” says Welsh.
“I have all the clippings from newspapers that were lambasting the British government, because at that point they had spent hundreds of millions of pounds on cameras,” he says. The government “had these two criminologists — I’m sure they had other choice words for us — and we were causing a fuss. We wanted to know, what does the evidence say?”
Nancy La Vigne, a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, led one of the most detailed examinations of surveillance video in the US in a 2009 study for the Department of Justice. The report examined the use of surveillance cameras in three cities that have made extensive use of the technology: Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, DC.
In Baltimore, where extensive arrays of cameras were installed in a 50-block downtown area and in three high-crime neighborhoods, property and violent crime appeared to be reduced in the downtown area and in two of the three neighborhoods, with reductions ranging from 8 percent in one neighborhood to 25 percent in the downtown area.
In Chicago, the research found a significant 38 percent crime reduction in one neighborhood targeted with cameras, but little to show for the effort in a second area, though the study notes that the concentration of cameras was much less in the latter. The study of cameras in Washington, DC, did not show any pronounced effects.
So do surveillance cameras prevent crime? “My answer would be a definitive it depends,” says La Vigne. “It depends on how they’re deployed, it depends on how they’re used.” She says they have to be in areas where there is a significant crime problem, deployed in great enough numbers to provide a real deterrence, and there have to be resources allotted for monitoring them and following-up incidents picked up on camera.
Police in Fall River think they put together the right ingredients to make a difference. In response to an increase in store robberies in recent years, cameras were installed at 20 small businesses as part of a two-year, $165,000 federal grant. Storeowners were also given tips on other safety measures they could take like clearing things from windows to give an unobstructed view into the store from the street. Police Chief Daniel Racine says the city has seen a 30 percent decrease in robberies of small businesses. “We thought that was pretty significant,” he says.
While deploying video surveillance in a way that yields a reduction in crime can be tricky, it is becoming a mainstay of criminal investigations after an incident occurs.
As the Boston Police Department’s superintendent of investigative services, Bobby Merner oversees all criminal investigations by the department. The seen-it-all son of Mission Hill has worked the streets in the city’s toughest neighborhoods, including time over his 28-year career in the gang unit, the drug unit, and as the head of homicide. Merner knows the human side of how to work a case as well as any cop in the city. But he says surveillance video has become an invaluable aid to those efforts.
“There isn’t an incident that happens at any time of any day, any night that the first thing we ask isn’t, any cameras?” says Merner. “Because there are so many now. It enhances our investigative abilities greatly.”
He says the proliferation of video surveillance, both government and private cameras, has changed the procedures that are followed as soon as officers arrive at a serious crime scene. “One of the first things we do is we conduct something called the canvass,” he says. “And the canvass is for witnesses. Who was present at the time? Well, part of the canvass now is to have someone, whether it’s a patrol officer or a detective, assigned immediately to check for cameras.”
Surveillance cameras have become law enforcement’s most reliable witnesses — unflappable observers with photographic memory.
In Boston, the canvass involves determining whether any of the hundreds of city-owned cameras may have had a view of the scene, but it more often means going to area businesses, whose arsenal of private surveillance cameras greatly outnumbers those the city has deployed.
Three Boston detectives who received training from the US Secret Service work under Merner in a special video recovery team that deals with private cameras, while police are also able to download images from the city-operated cameras.
Merner says the department is presently using surveillance video evidence as part of several active murder investigations. “We have some great footage,” he says.
Video has played a role in several recent murder cases, including the 2010 conviction of Xzeniyeju Chukwuezi for fatally shooting Solheil Turner in Roxbury in 2007. The early morning shooting of the 15-year-old high school student, who was waiting for a bus to school, shocked the city and seemed all the more chilling because it was captured on surveillance cameras from two nearby stores.
“We’re looking for it all the time, and we’re getting it in many instances,” says Suffolk County district attorney Dan Conley about video evidence.
Surveillance video proved vital in the quick arrest of a suspect in the shooting in November of Chang Ly, a hard-working Vietnamese refugee who was shot while behind the counter of his Dorchester convenience store.
Sometimes cameras provide leads that outfox even more enterprising criminals. In a March 2013 shooting in a Blue Hill Avenue convenience store, the gunman sought to foil any ability to ID him by wearing a mask, but a camera captured the spot where he propped the door to the store open with a bare hand while firing at the clerk with the other. A palm print obtained from that spot on the door proved crucial in making an ID and ultimately securing a guilty plea in the case.
Video can also sometimes make up for reluctant witnesses. “The more we can gain from video surveillance or DNA or those sorts of things, the easier it is for us to solve cases without human beings stepping forward,” says Conley.
But there is a flipside to that. As Nancy La Vigne and her colleagues wrote in their Department of Justice report: “Prosecutors cited the ‘CSI effect’ whereby juries assume that advanced forensic and technological evidence is present at all crime scenes and don’t deliver guilty [verdicts] in the absence of camera footage.”
Several shootings at or near MBTA stations last fall were quickly followed by arrests aided by surveillance video. “We like to say it’s the wave of the future, but the future is here,” says Lt. Richard Sullivan of the Transit Police.
Nowhere may the future be more here than across the MBTA’s 145 subway stations and its fleet of buses. The T has more than 5,000 cameras deployed throughout its system, giving its facilities by far the most concentrated surveillance-camera presence in the state. The T says it has invested “tens of millions of dollars” in the camera system, almost all of it federal funding, primarily from the Department of Homeland Security.
Sullivan says Transit Police make use of surveillance video “on a daily basis.” That includes everything from pursuing leads following violent incidents such as last fall’s shootings at T stations to much more low-level offenses that can nonetheless pique public outrage.
Such was the case in November with a video image showing a man pocketing the cellphone of a woman that dropped onto a subway platform as she leapt to her death in front of a Red Line train. By the following day, with the image appearing on television newscasts, news websites, and in newspapers, 26-year-old Josue Gonzalez turned himself — and the phone — in to police.
Jake Wark, a spokesman for Conley, the Suffolk County DA, says surveillance video “plays a part in almost every investigation and prosecution of a crime inside an MBTA bus or station.”
While cities like Baltimore and Chicago have set up extensive camera networks in certain areas, Boston has not gone that route apart from the T’s extensive camera network. There are 122 cameras operated by police using grant funding from the federal Department of Homeland Security, with another 190 cameras spread across eight immediately surrounding communities. The police department also has several dozen “quick-deploy” cameras that can be set up for special events or easily shifted to areas experiencing crime problems.
Boston also has about 380 cameras along major thoroughfares, designed primarily to aid the city and state transportation departments in traffic monitoring and management, but which can also be viewed from the police information nerve-center in the department’s Roxbury headquarters.
Lots of the evidence used to investigate cases, however, comes from private cameras installed by businesses. All of the surveillance video obtained from the Marathon bombing came from private cameras in the area, says Davis.
Boston Police Capt. Richard Sexton says the Dorchester district he’s in charge of was hit a couple of years ago by a series of 13 armed robberies of businesses. Once police finally had a video image from one business with a camera and released it publicly, “within a day we had people calling with an identification,” says Sexton. He says the perpetrator is now serving a 15-year sentence.
“It definitely has made cases that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Sexton says of the widespread availability of video images.
THE RATIONAL OFFENDER
Though there are lots of examples to support Sexton’s view, the research world has yet to carry out rigorous studies that provide evidence of a crime-solving effect of surveillance video, says Welsh, the Northeastern University criminologist. The MBTA clearance rates for crimes — the rate at which incidents result in an arrest — are slightly higher than the national average for all police departments, but not by a big margin.
Major crime is down more than 20 percent on the T from levels of a decade ago, but rates have also decreased in Boston as well as nationally over this period.
Sullivan, the Transit Police lieutenant, says he thinks the T’s heavy presence of cameras will lead to further reduction beyond any overall decline in crime rates that may occur otherwise. “Eventually, when we have enough time under our belt, I think you will see that this will aid in the overall reduction of crime,” he says. “We’re hopeful.”
The belief that surveillance cameras can have a preventive effect is rooted in a theory of deterrence based on the idea of the “rational offender.” “There’s this premise that most offenders are acting rationally, there’s a weighing of the costs and benefits,” says Welsh, the Northeastern criminology professor. “That is good news for all of us — it’s not the random spontaneous criminal event that so often makes the front pages. And what that really gets at is the ability to impede or put in place barriers to increase the risks for crime commission,” says Welsh.
The T hopes its saturation of stations and buses with cameras is becoming just that barrier. Part of that deterrence effort includes prominently displayed video screens showing passengers on subway platforms or on buses. The hope is that the displays deter “all who may possess nefarious intent while traveling on the MBTA,” says Sullivan. He says the T also wants it clear that there is nothing covert about its camera surveillance. “They’re not positioned surreptitiously,” he says.
The rational offender theory suggests we can appeal to a would-be criminal’s sense of reason, and there may be some who think better of their “nefarious intent” once they’re aware of the presence of cameras. The population inclined toward crime, however, does not universally think at that higher plane.
“I don’t know that they are preventing crime,” says Merner, the Boston police superintendent, about video cameras, “because obviously we’re still catching a lot of bad guys on video doing a lot of bad things. All you’ve got to do is watch the evening news to see the latest brain surgeon-criminal doing something on camera.”
When police are able to quickly access video surveillance images of a crime, it can help them in looking for fleeing suspects in the immediate area. For investigations after an incident, before releasing an image and seeking public tips, they often share the image within law enforcement circles, looking for leads to a suspect’s identify from other officers, probation officials, guards at the South Bay House of Correction, and others who are well-acquainted with the repeat offenders who account for a good portion of those committing crimes.
While that combines technology with old-fashioned street knowledge of offenders among cops and others in law enforcement, the Massachusetts State Police bring the use of surveillance video into the realm of NCIS and other popular culture portrayals of crime fighting using cutting-edge technology. Since 2006, the department has operated a unit that uses facial recognition software to tap the Registry of Motor Vehicles database of drivers’ license photographs to aid crime investigations. The specialized unit works with State Police detectives, federal law enforcement, and local police departments to try to match suspect’s captured on surveillance video with the RMV database.
In 2013, the unit ran the software program for 441 cases requested by law enforcement agencies and got 123 “hits” that appeared to ID a person in the surveillance image. Through October of last year, the most recent data available from the State Police, the unit had processed 253 requests, with 59 “hits.”
The use of facial recognition software is just the sort of once-futuristic capability that has arrived, and that makes civil liberties advocates uneasy.
Government has “created, largely in the shadows with zero public debate and very little external oversight, if any, very advanced camera networks that are able to track people throughout the city as they go about their daily lives, and that is a huge problem,” says Kade Crockford, director of the technology for liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
In a series of articles last year, the alternative newsweekly Dig Boston reported that Boston engaged in an ambitious snooping exercise during two 2013 concerts held on City Hall Plaza. The paper reported that a city contract with IBM to develop elaborate information systems for municipal government had been extended to include something termed an Intelligent Operations Center. At the two concerts, the center was used to record video of concertgoers that could then be analyzed using advanced biometric techniques to detect not only facial and body features but also “panic levels and crowd sentiment.”
Boston officials say the exercise was a pilot program that has not been continued.
“Under the previous administration, the city of Boston engaged in a pilot program with IBM, testing situational awareness software,” Kate Norton, a spokeswoman for Mayor Marty Walsh, said in a statement. She said the city did not see “practical value” in the system and “did not pursue a long-term use of this software or enter into a contract to utilize this software on a permanent basis.” She added, however, that as the city “explores new technology and new public safety tools, it may not necessarily be practical or appropriate to disclose every test or demonstration.”
As for the State Police facial recognition software unit, officials say it is used only in pursuing crime leads. “We do not use facial recognition software to identify images of persons recorded outside of an ongoing investigation into a specific crime,” spokesman David Procopio said in a statement. “For instance, we would not use it to identify random images of people photographed in a crowd or a demonstration.”
While police departments hear from those concerned about privacy issues and the potential for video surveillance to be used to gather information on law-abiding citizens, they also hear from those eager to see cameras installed in the hope that they will bring some added measure of safety to an area.
In Worcester, the City Council voted in December to install 20 to 30 cameras in two neighborhoods experiencing crime problems. They will be tied in to the city’s police headquarters. Some residents appeared at a December hearing and raised concerns about the cameras, but none of them were from the neighborhoods where they are to be installed, says Ed Augustus, the Worcester city manager. People in the affected neighborhoods, who said, “‘Hey, I don’t feel safe on the streets and worry about my kids walking here’ — they were interested in the cameras,” says Augustus.
Last year, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh established an initiative to allow young people aged 12 to 25 to weigh in on how to spend $1 million out of the city’s capital budget. More than 1,500 people cast ballots in the process. One of the projects selected was the installation of surveillance cameras at Dr. Loesch Family Park in Dorchester, a park with a tortured history of problems, including violent encounters, that residents are committed to turning around.
“In the end, people up there wanted them,” says Sexton, the local police commander, about the cameras being installed.
Emmett Folgert has spent more than three decades working with young people in Dorchester, trying to steer them away from trouble and pull those who have already found their way to it back toward more productive pursuits.
Folgert, director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, thinks the presence of surveillance cameras is, on balance, a helpful development, pointing out that it’s urban youth who are most often the ones who are victims of violence. “They’re really scared, and with the cameras, that gives them some safety,” he says. “So many people who are commenting on this don’t live in these neighborhoods and they are not young. They don’t understand the terror that happens in unsupervised spaces when you have organized gangs.”
The newest wrinkle in the debate over surveillance video is the rising call for police officers to wear body cameras that capture their activity and interactions with the public. The demands for body cameras have come in the wake of the deaths at the hands of police of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York. President Obama announced in early December that he was requesting $75 million in funding for 50,000 police body cameras.
The evidence, to date, on their impact is limited, but bodycams are likely here to stay. “I think that clearly is going to be a trend here in the United States,” says Davis, who thinks the wearable tiny cameras are, on balance, a plus. “It improves the conduct of the police. It also improves the conduct of the people interacting with the police,” he says. “I think it helps both sides.”
Mayor Walsh reacted coolly to the idea. “My answer was I think the problem goes a lot deeper than body cameras,” says Walsh. “A camera’s not going to build a relationship between a police officer and young person on the street. That’s still my answer, but we will still be open to body cameras in pilot programs.”
Segun Idowu, cofounder of a Boston group pushing for police body cameras that formed following the Ferguson shooting, says he and the roughly 50 members of the Boston Police Camera Action Team are determined to drive concrete change. “We were tired of just sitting around and complaining,” says Idowu, a 26-year-old Morehouse College graduate. “We’ve been having conversations on race. All we ever do when things happen is we talk.”
Many have pointed to the Eric Garner case in New York as evidence of the limits to what body cameras might achieve. Garner died after being put in a chokehold by a New York police officer, an episode that was captured on a bystander’s cellphone, but a grand jury voted not to bring any charges.
“All of us were very let down at the decision, given that there was video evidence,” says Idowu. “We don’t have all the answers. But I am not ready to concede the notion that body cameras are not going to work simply because of this one high-profile case.”
For his part, Merner, the Boston police superintendent, takes a cautious approach to the technology. “Look, I think it’s something that should be explored,” says Merner. “But I think folks think this is a be-all, end-all.”
There are all sorts of details to be worked out around the use of body cameras — when are they on, how long is information stored. Merner is quick to highlight ways that the use of body cameras could set things back. “I’ve been doing this for ages — drugs, gangs, homicide,” he says, ticking off the various units he’s worked and sometimes directed, developing contacts and trust in city neighborhoods. “People talk to me all the time. ‘Hey, Bobby, you might want to take a look down the street. There’s a blue van. Or shoot up by Orchard Park.’ Those days will be gone if you have a bodycam on.”
The fact that some of the same civil liberties advocates pushing for wider use of police body cameras are also raising questions about the proliferation of surveillance cameras under the guise of crime prevention or control underscores a dimension to the issue that is often overlooked in discussing this or any other new technology.
“It’s a tool like any other tool,” says Gary Marx, emeritus professor of sociology at MIT who has written extensively about surveillance. “It’s not inherently good or bad.” Marx says it’s “important not to get swept off one’s cultural or ideological feet by the various claims” about video surveillance, whether they are touting its wonders or sounding the alarm over the dangers it poses. “The key is a little humility and skepticism,” he says.
The discussion, at this point, is hardly one centered only on government and how far it goes in watching us.
“We’ve definitely given up a bit of our privacy, but it’s not so much due to government. It’s more due to technology,” says Davis. “The cat is out of the bag. Whether the city of Boston decides to buy a thousand cameras tomorrow or they don’t makes no difference, because there’s 10,000 cameras out there in the private sector.”
Surveillance video is surely not a magic bullet that will eradicate crime, let alone eliminate the social factors that are often behind it. But it may, when well-publicized and heavily deployed, help to reset norms in places like transit systems. And it’s hard to argue that it’s not valuable in investigating and solving crime given the steady stream of cases in which video evidence appears to help crack a case or strengthen it.
The question we’ll have to grapple with is whether there’s a point at which we have too much of a good thing.“There is a level of intrusion of video into our lives that, as a society, we’ve yet to figure out where the limits are and where they should be,” says Jerry Ratcliffe, director of the Center for Security and Crime Science at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Civil liberties groups, on the other hand, tend to be concerned about civil rights and ignore the ability to reduce or solve crime. We need a mature conversation as a society. There’s a great deal of benefit potentially from these systems, but nothing’s for free.”
Even Davis, offering an example that is a little surprising coming from Boston’s former top cop, is a bit wistful about how much technology has changed things. “I have a little nostalgia for the old days, when if you were a teenager you might be able to drink a beer without somebody watching you do it,” he says. “But I think that the cost-benefit analysis weighs heavily that this is a good thing.”