PRESUMABLY, ALL this round-the-clock monitoring would, at the very least, protect us from more-common crimes. But it isnít, at least not based on the frequency of crimes that outdoor surveillance might deter.
That might stem from a lack of coordinated strategy. The department has no permanent facilities for tapping into real-time video feeds, and doesnít even have a master list of the cityís cameras, so if detectives want footage of a particular crime scene, they have to hunt around for it. Superintendent James Claiborne and Captain Bernard OíRourke are heading up strategy on the video-surveillance front, but thus far that hasnít meant much more than watching college students celebrate in Kenmore Square.
Itís a situation poised for change. Claiborne and OíRourke have been working out surveillance policies, and are taking their first big step by installing 17 permanent digital cameras ó from among the 19 purchased for the DNC ó in crime-riddled Chinatown locations, Sexton says. This will be the first permanent installment of its own cameras by the department, and if all goes well (and the city finds the cash to buy more cameras), it will be the first of many such deployments.
The project has not enjoyed 100 percent smooth sailing, however: the cameras were supposed to all be up by now, but Chinatown residents briefly stalled the plan. The first cameras are now slated to go up a week from Monday.
Chinatown residents have raised two general concerns. First, and most obvious, is the privacy issue. Second, people feared that putting police cameras in the business districts would drive drug dealers onto residential streets. To counter those concerns, the BPD now plans to put some cameras on Chinatownís side streets, as well.
The department will not, however, say exactly where those cameras are going. "If you say theyíre in Chinatown, thatís a deterrent. If you say itís on Washington and Tremont, then they just have to move out of view," says Sexton.
That attitude is also shared by other law-enforcement offices. The Massachusetts State Police wonít say where its cameras are, or even how many it has. "It wouldnít be appropriate for us to disclose any of that information, for security concerns," says a spokesperson. The Federal Protection Service was pretty open about its DNC plans (and posts disclosures at buildings that it monitors), but it is otherwise tight-lipped. "We donít get into a lot of specifics on security tactics," says a spokesperson for the service.
But others argue that secrecy defeats the purpose. "Itís ludicrous. It makes no sense," says Stephanie Page, attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services. "If you donít know where the cameras are, how can it act as a deterrent?" Banks, for instance, typically position their cameras as overtly as possible.
"Any good investigator is going to inquire about whether there is video surveillance available" when working a case, Sexton says. "From a police perspective, any investigation in this day and time would be inquiring about the availability of video."
"Reviewing surveillance tapes is a frequent practice," says David Procopio, spokesperson for the Suffolk County DA, in a written response to the Phoenix. "Surveillance footage frequently provides helpful evidence.... It is a longstanding law enforcement practice to seek and review surveillance footage."
But Page and other defense attorneys also question how willing the police are to share video footage they have obtained when it doesnít help their case. Defense attorneys often get assigned to cases long after potentially helpful video footage has been destroyed by the cameraís owner, whether that was a private or public entity, and so must rely on the police to turn over everything obtained in their investigations. Thatís a lot more trust than the police have necessarily earned, says Rosemary Scappiccio, the attorney who helped free Shawn Drumgold from his wrongful conviction.
It was a defense attorney, not the police, who obtained a surveillance video that cleared three men on 2002 drug charges, by showing that Detective Miguel Pinto was not in a restaurant bathroom witnessing the illegal sale as he had claimed, but outside the restaurant altogether. Pinto resigned from the BPD last month, and this week pleaded guilty to falsifying a police report and violating the defendantsí constitutional rights.
Some jurors seem skeptical as well. Last year, a holdout juror caused a hung jury in the trial of a man accused of attempted murder in the shooting of two police officers. "There were cameras all around the place. I canít believe they didnít have more video," juror Frank Shand told the Boston Globe. Another jury hung in the trial of two men accused of killing a teenager on a T platform; that jury was shown surveillance video of the defendants leaving the area, but not of the actual shooting.
IN FACT, the Tís camera deployment has required some rethinking in the wake of a surge in violent acts on MBTA property, many of which were not caught on film.
But selected surveillance poses a larger problem that is not being addressed ó one brought up by Chinatown residents in response to the BPDís plans. To put it simply, the cameras are currently protecting businesses, not residents.
Try to make off with a Louis Vuitton bag in Copley Square, and youíll be on more film footage than Ben Stiller. Not so when breaking and entering to commit rape in the Back Bay. The streets around the FleetCenter are under constant surveillance, but not the ones lined with homes snaking through the North End. This is obviously in large part because businesses pay for their own surveillance, and partly because local law enforcement doesnít have money to spend. But itís a lot cheaper to put up cameras in known trouble spots than to put Drug Enforcement Administration personnel undercover in a gang, which the city does.
The truth is that the city has not thought out a coherent anti-crime strategy for video surveillance ó either for getting the most out of it, or for protecting privacy while doing it. Meanwhile, the city is sprouting cameras everywhere, and if they are there, you can be sure they will be used.
David S. Bernstein can be reached at email@example.com 2
Issue Date: February 11 - 17, 2005
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