If the camera adds 10 pounds, then New York City subways are about to become freight trains—a pair will be installed on each MTA car, announced Gov. Kathy Hochul last week.

“We’re having two security cameras that’ll cover the widths of the train, installed on each one of the [6,355] subway trains,” she said at a Queens press conference. “I’m optimistic and I believe they will also be a deterrent to people. You’re going to be caught, if you conduct any activity—whether an aggressive act or violent crime.” 

Hochul’s office forecasts installation of high-resolution cameras on the city’s entire 6,500-plus subway fleet will finish sometime in 2025. 200 train cars are planned to be retrofitted each month when the project begins, with incoming R211 subway cars arriving pre-equipped. But Dorothy Schulz, professor emerita at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the process isn’t as simple as putting together a Ring Home Security system.

“These are old, old subway cars,” she said. “They have to be taken out of service, there has to be electrical work. There are also lighting issues, will these cameras even be able to see anything? What about between stations, sometimes when the cars go dark—will the cameras operate in low light?”

Schulz, the MTA-Metro North Railroad Police’s first female captain, also doubts the cameras will be effective crime-fighting tools. From her experience, footage is used for retroactive investigation—tape is pulled and used to identify a person after something happens. 

And then there’s the matter of privacy. Hochul says the feeling of “Big Brother” watching over commuters is intentional, and offers New Yorkers a “peace of mind.” Well, as long as they don’t commit crimes. But the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) disagrees.

“New York City is already home to tens of thousands surveillance cameras and there’s no evidence this massive expansion of subway cameras will improve safety,” said NYCLU technology and privacy strategist Daniel Schwarz. “Gov. Hochul’s announcement is even more worrying given that the MTA has been completely secretive and has not disclosed any information, policies, or audits about its camera and software systems: the scope of information that is collected and analyzed, how long it is retained for, how law enforcement uses the information, who the information is shared with, and whether any of the deployed technologies show discriminatory impact or threaten people’s fundamental rights.

“Living in a sweeping surveillance state shouldn’t be the price we pay to be safe. Real public safety comes from investing in our communities, not from omnipresent government surveillance.”

NYC-based privacy group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) calls the move nothing more than “security theater.” 

“New Yorkers want safety, not surveillance,” said S.T.O.P. executive director Albert Fox Cahn in a statement. “As the governor admitted, subway crime is down this summer, not up. Big Brother’s spying never prevented crime before, and it won’t start now. This tech has failed us too many times to count.”

Both Cahn and Schulz cite the Sunset Park R Train shooting this past April as an example of cameras’ inefficacy—video recording at the 36th Street station malfunctioned during the attack, although other subway surveillance footage did help retrace and identify the shooter.  

Grant money from the United States Department of Homeland Security covers most costs for the cameras via the Urban Area Security Initiative. Additional funding will come from ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Subway Action Plan. And 3,800 more train station cameras will also be installed thanks to the federal funding. Mayor Eric Adams is a fan. He believes positive changes from the new cameras are “inevitable.” 

“Public safety is my top priority and this new security initiative will further work to ensure that all New Yorkers can get to where they need to go safely,” said Adams. “Public transportation is the backbone of New York City, and when commuters feel protected the entire system stands upright.”

His former professor, Schulz, is less optimistic.

“I don’t think that savvy New Yorkers are going to think that these cameras are going to make them substantially safer,” she said.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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