Metro Gets Federal Funds for Cameras on Trains, Buses

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Metro officials are preparing to install video cameras on an unspecified number of rail cars, the first step in what could become a systemwide surveillance network that officials say will help them better manage crowds and investigate criminal activity.

The agency's board voted Thursday to accept $27.8 million in grants from the Department of Homeland Security to pay for cameras. Most of the money will put more cameras on buses, in ventilation shafts, at station entrances and near the end of platforms over the next few years. Just more than $7.1 million is set aside to surveil passengers inside rail cars -- something that is done in other cities but that continues to trouble some privacy advocates.

Metro Transit Police Deputy Chief Jeff Delinski said the primary purpose of these cameras is for crowd control, despite the fact that the money comes from a transit security program. Metro briefly put cameras on a handful of rail cars in summer 2006 to see how customers would respond to experimental designs and technology.

"That spurred the idea that there's a lot of good information the cameras can capture," Delinski said. "Our rail operations people will get the most use out of it. As an ancillary benefit, the police department could go back and retrieve the footage."

One of the federal government's goals in paying for cameras is to deter wrongdoing by scaring would-be terrorists into thinking that they are under a watchful eye.

"Preparation is key to successful terrorist attacks," said DHS spokeswoman Sara Kuban. "Cameras on board trains enable real-time monitoring to detect behaviors or items of potential concern and guide the actions of law enforcement or security personnel to address or investigate the matter."

Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato noted that few crimes occur in the train cars themselves. Most criminal activity that Metro Transit Police respond to is in parking garages.

"We don't know if $7.1 million would put a camera on every train or if we even need a camera on every train," she said.

Delinski wouldn't say when cameras might be installed or where they will go.

The American Public Transportation Association, the leading industry trade group, encouraged Congress this week to increase funding for transit security. Greg Hull, APTA's director of security and operations, said cameras were key to investigating what happened in the 2004 Madrid train bombings and 2005 London subway bombings.

Metro is following the lead of other major rail systems. Officials in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Jersey, Atlanta and Boston are also embracing surveillance cameras, Hull said.

A flood of government money -- combined with technological improvements that brought down costs and improved quality -- is accelerating a long-term process that began in the 1970s, he said.

Metro's plan troubles some. Jay Stanley, a District-based privacy expert in the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, worries that the video footage will be abused, and he pointed to examples in Europe -- where cameras seem omnipresent -- to make his argument.

All of the Maryland Transit Administration's trains and buses arrive from the manufacturer equipped with cameras that can record video and audio. The video cameras are on when a bus is in operation, but the agency keeps the microphones turned off for privacy reasons.

"People just don't act the same way when they're being watched by armed government agents," said Stanley, who commutes to work daily on the Orange Line. "The Metro is an intimate space."

Delinski said riders have no reasonable expectation of privacy when they are on trains.

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