In 2004, six surveillance cameras were installed in Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood by city and county law enforcement officials.
Because of a slow connection, they didn’t work particularly well. But officials recognized their potential, and today there are approximately 140 high-definition surveillance cameras throughout the city, according to Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney. These cameras have been used to solve crimes, generate leads and obtain convictions, and Carney said that they also deter crime.
“Sometimes the cameras have captured whole crimes,” Carney said. “We’ve caught at least two homicides and parts of, or aftermaths of, others. Many, many times the cameras have provided investigative leads. They’ve helped solve bank robberies, shootings and car larcenies.”
Carney recalled several cases where cameras helped pinpoint who was responsible for a crime. Cameras captured city resident William Robinson’s non-fatal ambush shooting of a man in a car at the corner of Albany and Hulett streets in 2010, and provided footage that proved crucial in convicting Omari Lee in the 2007 murder of 21-year-old Xavier McDaniel in Jerry Burrell Park.
But the cameras have also been used to solve lesser crimes and to make arrests.
Carney described a case in which the cameras helped give police the evidence they needed to arrest a drug dealer downtown. The dealer wasn’t selling to the undercover drug dealers sent in to make buys, but the cameras captured numerous other drug buys on camera, enabling the arrest. “From the zoom function, we could get close ups,” Carney said. “We could get evidentiary quality images of dealing.”
The drug dealer only had “five or six little pieces of crack” on him at the time of arrest, but the video footage showed that he had been in possession of a much greater amount of the drug, and authorities were able to hit him with the more serious possession with intent to sell charge, rather than a misdemeanor for possession. Carney said.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing case, the debate over surveillance cameras in public has re-emerged. Advocates believe their use should be expanded, saying they can help solve and even prevent crimes, while civil libertarians remain leery of creating a vast network of surveillance cameras that can be used to observe civilians who aren’t doing anything wrong.
“There’s no question surveillance cameras can offer enormous benefits in helping us solve crimes, but their value in preventing crimes has yet to be established,” said Melanie Trimble, director of the Capital Region chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in an email. “It’s essential when the government engages in surveillance that it acknowledges that there are privacy implications and take measures to reduce the risk of abuse. We need to be sure the material captured is not prying into private spaces, is monitored by appropriate law enforcement personnel, and is erased after a period of time to protect the innocent comings and goings of regular people engaging in their daily routines.”
William Husson, a communications professor at the University at Albany, said the debate over surveillance cameras is unresolved.
“These technologies leave people divided and conflicted,” Husson said. “If you have surveillance technology in public places, that can represent an invasion of privacy. But cameras can assist law enforcement. The tension between those opposing concerns, between a desire to not have your privacy invaded and a desire for safety, that’s something people are working out right now.”
An unanswered question, Husson said, is how much privacy people are willing to give up for public safety. In general, people appear to be growing more comfortable with the idea that when they go out in public, cameras are likely to be present, he said. “People are getting used to the fact that their conduct might be recorded, that there’s a potential for their conduct to be captured on a digital recording device,” he said. “It’s a very different world than when I was a kid.”
“This debate has gone on for centuries,” Husson added. “These technologies are just adding another layer to it.”
Robert Heverly, interim director of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School, said there’s a difference between private businesses and citizens recording and photographing activity, and public surveillance systems. Public surveillance systems suggest a “panopticon, ‘1984’ world where all cameras are controlled by the government,” he said. A panopticon is a type of institutional building that enables a watchman to observe residents without their knowledge, while “1984” is a reference to the famous novel by George Orwell, in which a dictator known as Big Brother rules over an all-seeing totalitarian state.
One big concern is the potential that surveillance systems have for abuse, Heverly said.
“My answer, if someone says that we need more cameras, is ‘What are you going to do with those cameras?’ ” he said. “I don’t think we need more cameras.”
Carney said he understands the privacy concerns.
“People get nervous thinking they’re constantly being watched,” he said. But he said that people should have no expectation of privacy in public spaces. The presence of surveillance cameras “is no different than if a person was there watching what was happening. We’re not looking in people’s windows. We’re looking to see what’s happening in public view. The cameras are only used for criminal investigations. We’re not using them for any other purpose.”
Schenectady’s cameras are not constantly monitored, but the archived footage is regularly reviewed. Carney said it wouldn’t make sense to pay people just to watch the cameras, because there are so many of them. “What are you going to look at?” he said. “We go back and review the footage later.” A program is used to match locations on incident reports with the nearest camera, which helps police focus their search for useful information. “Any time there’s a major crime we look at all the cameras in the area,” Carney said.
Carney said the footage is saved on the system’s servers for about two weeks, and then recorded over.
Carney believes the cameras also help prevent crime, but acknowledged that this is harder to measure than their success in helping solve crimes. He said crime has tended to drop in places where the cameras are located, and added that they’re also useful for officer safety, because police can view a crime scene on camera before going there.
Carney said that city residents have been enthusiastic about the cameras, and in many cases have requested them.
“This isn’t something we’ve imposed on the people of Schenectady.” He said that the entire system has cost between $2.5 million and $3 million, but that grants have provided the vast majority of funding.
Other local communities have installed cameras, or are looking to do so.
Saratoga Springs plans to install six digital surveillance cameras in the downtown area near Caroline Street and Broadway.
A 2008 study examined the effectiveness of an electronic security management system used at a private apartment complex in Manhattan. According to David Greenberg, the New York University sociology professor who co-authored the study, there was “little evidence that crime was reduced by putting in cameras.”
But he noted that the cameras were installed in a low crime area, where there was “little room for crime to drop.” He added that when he conducted his study, in the early 2000s, the quality of images produced by surveillance cameras was not very good. But the technology has improved, which might make them more useful, he said.
“I used to think that putting lots of cameras around would do nothing, because you could never pay people to watch them all,” he said. But cameras “did seem to be helpful in the Boston case.”
Heverly and Greenberg said privacy rights are eroding, and the increased use of cameras isn’t the biggest cause.
“There’s a lot of watching of what’s going on in the new public, which is online,” Heverly said. “The government is seeking information from Internet service providers.”
“Rights of privacy are diminishing due to technology,” Greenberg said. “Cameras on the street are the tip of the iceberg.”