MTA’s Broad Surveillance Camera Expansion Did Little To Reduce Crime

Last year the MTA significantly increased the number of surveillance cameras in the subway system, installing 784 new cameras, three times as many as in 2019. This came amid an uptick in crime even with record low ridership, bringing the total number of cameras to more than 8,000. 

Despite increased surveillance, however, the drop in subway crime in 2020 was not commensurate with the drop in ridership. Major felonies, overall, were only down about 30 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. And some major crimes actually increased. Burglaries, for example, went from 7 in 2019 to 23 last year.

Ridership decreased by more than 80 percent from March to June, but felony crimes only dropped by a few percentage points and robberies increased during that time, compared to the previous year.  The number of rapes and murders, while still uncommon in the subway system, more than doubled, with six murders in 2020 compared to three in 2019, and there were seven rapes reported in 2020, compared to three in 2019. This includes a brazen daytime rape, in which the suspect was filmed by a commuter and later arrested. 

Crime experts say security cameras can serve as a deterrent (some criminals are unlikely to commit crimes if they believe they’re being watched), but mostly the cameras are a tool to identify suspects. 

“Government camera systems that record lawful activity always pose a risk of abuse, particularly when they are huge systems like the MTA one,” Christopher Dunn, legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote in a statement. “Any such system must limit access to the system and delete recordings promptly. Law-enforcement agencies should never have access to video recordings unless investigating a specific crime. And there should be clear bans against the use of biometric surveillance such as face recognition.”

New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg acknowledged at a board meeting this month that the MTA doesn’t usually speak openly about its surveillance camera program. But she wanted to highlight the number of new cameras installed last year and their purpose.

“These are not cameras that are necessarily feeding information real-time, these are cameras that we can then go back to if an incident occurs in the system, if the incident occurs in the path of that camera we can go back, take a look at that camera and share in the information with the NYPD and with MTA police,” Feinberg said.  “The fact that we’ve been able to ramp up our use of this technology over the last year has led to a significant number of occasions when we’ve been able to share information, footage and images with the police which has led to an arrest of someone who’s committed a significant crime in the system.”

In some cases the cameras made a difference, like the subway shoving in the Lexington Avenue/59th Street station, in which police located a suspect quickly. Police say surveillance footage also helped identify a suspect in a Bronx stabbing last March. Still, despite the prevalence of cameras, it took nine months until a suspect was arrested in the fatal arson case that killed a motorman last March.

The MTA said about half the cameras, or 4,500, are monitored in real time, which is still a high number. The feeds, according to a NY1 report, are monitored by both the police and MTA security officials. In 2019, the NYCLU raised concerns about the NYPD using some security camera live feeds to scan stations for homeless people.

Asked about the tripling of the MTA’s security cameras, NYCLU spokesperson or some other privacy/civil liberties advocate said…

Experts agree the footage is more useful for identifying suspects after a crime has been committed.

“Cameras, unfortunately are not that much of a deterrent, particularly not to people who may be mentally incapaciated,” Dorothy Moses Schulz, professor emeritus at John Jay College and a retired captain of the Metro-North Commuter Railroad Police, told Gothamist/WNYC. “So the cameras are good for catching people later, not so good at catching people in the act unless they’re being monitored.” 

Some of the most gruesome crimes in the system recently, such as the fatal subway slashings in February allegedly by a mentally ill homeless man, still sent hundreds of officers on a manhunt for a couple of days. The NYPD deployed what the police commissioner called “a small army of detectives and investigators working this all night, throughout New York City” before locating the suspect.

After the arrest, NYPD Deputy Chief Brian McGee told reporters that police identified the suspect by his clothes. He was wearing the same clothes they saw him wearing on surveillance video.

After the subway stabbing spree in February, the MTA asked the NYPD to add 1,000 officers to the system. The department agreed to 500. And Feinberg, who got the MTA to agree to spend over $260 million to hire 500 more MTA police in 2019 — before the plan was put on hold during the pandemic — still maintains more officers are needed to patrol the subways.

“We need a stronger unformed presence in the system,” Feinberg said Tuesday, speaking to the Citizens Budget Commission. “I would like to see a uniformed presence in every station, frankly on every platform. We’re at a critical moment where people have to come back into the system and they have to feel like they’re safe.”

“There’s no doubt that the use of video technology in our subways has played a key role in investigating criminal cases,” NYPD Chief of Transit Kathleen O’Reilly wrote in a statement. “There are countless examples of how video footage has helped identify suspects – including from witness and bystander cell phone cameras. We are confident that continuing to add more cameras throughout the system will aid this effort, and we look forward to one day seeing cameras in every subway station.”