SCHENECTADY — The city is home to a vast network of surveillance cameras, part of a subtle-yet-critical component of crime-fighting efforts.
“Virtually no crime or felony indictment we have hasn’t involved some use of camera information,” said county District Attorney Robert Carney.
Now his office wants to expand the network into parts of Scotia, Niskayuna and Duanesburg.
“We’re looking to expand across the bridge into Scotia, which we can do with line of sight from antennas at [SUNY Schenectady County Community College],” Carney said. “We’re also looking to go down Balltown Road in the town of Niskayuna.”
The office is also seeking cameras for lower State Street in Schenectady, as well as a standalone unit in Duanesburg near the Stewart’s Shop at the intersection of routes 7 and 20.
Carney has included a funding request this year’s capital budget proposal, which he plans on presenting to the county Legislature next month.
He estimates costs of $35,000 each in Scotia and Niskayuna, and $15,000 in Duanesburg.
Scotia Mayor Tom Gifford said cameras are planned for two locations. Their installation isn’t indicative of any emerging hotbeds of criminal activity, he said, but are rather designed to collect information that may be used to solve crimes, including capturing license plates from vehicles that may have been used in criminal activity.
Gifford suggested surveillance of the Western Gateway Bridge could be helpful. “A lot of our crime comes over the bridge ... Our police are anxious to have all the tools we can get.”
Niskayuna Supervisor Yasmine Syed said she looked forward to learning more about the proposal.
“Hopefully I can have a conversation with [Carney] about why it’s necessary to put them on Balltown Road,” said Syed, who noted she wanted to ensure a “reasonable expectation of privacy if at all possible” for town residents.
The county’s network contains 390 cameras built out with a combination of public and private grant funds.
Carney said the system, which went online in 2004, is critical for generating leads, and has also cracked murder cases, including the contract killing of Charles Dembrosky in 2016.
Street camera footage captured Tarchand Lall walking away from a car containing hired gunmen shortly before the murder in the city’s Bellevue neighborhood.
“The camera’s evidence became critical,” Carney said.
Surveillance footage was also critical in solving the murder of Lasean Gause, an innocent bystander who was gunned down near the Zaid Food Market in Hamilton Hill in 2015.
They can also serve as a deterrent.
“It’s been immensely useful for public safety,” Carney said.
Rotterdam has its own camera network, which is compatible with the county system.
The DA's Office has long declined to reveal the exact disclosure of the cameras, citing security reasons.
“We’ve had some cameras that have been taken out and shot out,” Carney said. “Not knowing the precise location of our cameras is important.”
Carney also doesn’t want criminals monitoring equipment in order to track possible targets, and pointed at concerns about their potential use in civil litigation — such as lawyers tracking spouses in divorce cases.
“We only use them for criminal investigations,” he said.
While their locations are secret, so is the footage during an active criminal investigation.
Prosecutors across the state have generally declined to release footage to the public under the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) when disclosure could “reveal investigative techniques or procedures consisting of camera locations, capabilities and functionality.”
District attorneys have also historically opposed releasing footage on the grounds that it could interfere with a judicial proceeding.
Some privacy advocates, as well as newspapers, have painted the policy as overly broad and unnecessary.
A bill passed by the state Legislature may make it easier to access the footage. The bill amends FOIL, making it clear that records couldn’t be withheld solely because they relate in some manner to an investigation or criminal proceeding.
Members of the public or press could appeal to the judge who is presiding over that particular case and make an argument for why the records withheld under the judicial proceedings could be released as within the public interest.
Carney said he isn’t automatically opposed to the bill, but harbors the same concerns.
“I would be far more concerned about the integrity of the investigation than I would be the immediate public accessibility of that information,” he said.
Joining the county’s street cameras is an emerging network of “optical sensors” being installed on utility poles as part of the city’s Smart Cities initiative.
The city plans on rolling out at least 400 of the devices in the near future.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said release of that footage will largely be governed by practicality, as the amount of data gathered is expected to be significant.
“It becomes negotiating really each request,” McCarthy said. “Do you want one photo or an hour’s worth of video?”
Additionally, city Police Department has been rolling out body cameras to all officers this year.
A ruling by a state appeals court in February determined that footage is subject to public disclosure under state law. City police have previously said they will make footage available through FOIL, but have not yet publicly released the policies governing camera usage or the retrieval of footage.
“Our access to it is obviously is derivative from them,” Carney said. “They probably are the arbiters of the release of that more than I am.”