BY ROCCO PARASCANDOLA. STAFF WRITER
Copyright 2006 Newsday, Inc.
It's a common law-enforcement lament: There's not enough money to put a cop on every corner. More and more, however, there's a camera everywhere you look, a one-eyed crimefighter that is changing the way police solve cases.
On any given day, the New York Police Department turns to the media for help, releasing surveillance video or pictures taken from surveillance video of suspected thieves and killers.
Last Tuesday, for instance, police released video stills of three men captured on security cameras making purchases with a credit card belonging to Thomas Whitney Jr., 24, a business school graduate found dead on a Chelsea street on May 21, apparently after he was beaten up during a dispute with several men.
By Wednesday, six suspects were in custody.
The video in that case was provided by several stores at which the men bought gas and clothes. In coming months, the police expect that surveillance video they release is more likely to come from one of the department's own cameras.
The Police Department, much to the chagrin of civil libertarians, has begun installing more than 500 cameras at more than 200 locations throughout the city where street crime has been a problem or where tourists tend to gather.
Police hope the cameras do for the streets what cameras in housing facilities have done for residents, with those 3,100 cameras fueling double-digit drops in crime, according to Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, the NYPD's chief spokesman.
"The cameras have proven to be very effective," Browne said.
On Fordham Road near Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, one location where department cameras already have been installed, police in a nearby surveillance van can monitor what is being recorded in real time.
Many of the other cameras in the department's $9.1-million program will strictly record what goes on the streets where they are posted. Police said, however, that the cameras also have the capability to be used as monitors.
Browne said there is no expectation of privacy on a public street and that there is no plan to keep the tapes unless a crime occurs.
But Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the initiative was introduced without feedback from public officials. Unless safeguards are put in place, he said, there is the potential for controversy, such as the June 2004 incident in which the suicide of a Bronx man captured on a police surveillance camera wound up on the Internet.
"Any time the police engage in videotaping of lawful activities, we worry about privacy violations and the potential for abuse," Dunn said. "Before the police start a videotaping program, there must be clear rules about how the videotapes will be used, how long will they be kept and who will have access to it."
The NYPD also recently turned an eye on its own, installing in plain view a camera in Elmhurst's 110th Precinct after two thefts there: Several guns were missing from the property room and about $5,000 in cash was taken from a desk after it was seized as evidence.
At about the same time, police expanded "Operation Safe Store," an initiative aimed at putting video cameras in bodegas and grocery stores where thieves or gunmen have previously struck. While each camera and installation costs the NYPD about $1,000 - two dozen stores are now involved - police sources familiar with the program say it's money well-spent and helps build bridges with merchants.
Jose Rodriguez, who was beaten during a recent theft from his Jamaica store, Papiro Grocery, accepted the NYPD's offer to have a camera installed because he said he loses too much money to shoplifters.
"When people see cameras or bulletproof glass, they're uneasy," said Rodriguez, 36. "But I need to protect my business. And my wife is always worried about something happening to me."
NYPD hopes efforts to place cameras on streets deters criminals