03/31/2010

Many NY subway security cameras are inoperable

Stabbings, Moscow attacks underscore dismal state of security cameras in subways

Associated Press

NEW YORK — About half the 4,313 security cameras installed along New York City's subways aren't seeing a thing - a blind spot in the crime and terrorism safety net for the nation's largest city.

"A lot of those cameras don't work, and maybe someday we're going to get very badly hurt because of it," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday.

While cameras are out of commission in the subway, the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transportation Authority has also been forced to cut police patrol shifts on major bridges and tunnels on the weekends.

The problem of missing video came to light after two men were stabbed to death on the subway - and there was no camera installed in the station to catch an image of the killer. Darnell Morel and Ricardo Williams, both 24, were killed in a fight that started around 5 a.m. Sunday at the Christopher Street station in downtown Manhattan.

The New York Police Department says it doesn't depend on the surveillance cameras set up by the MTA - instead, officers patrol the subways and set up random bag searches in stations around the city.

Overall, crime is down in the subways, even as ridership increases. In 1990, there were about 50 crimes a day reported in the subway, and now there are about five, according to police. About 5 million people ride the subway every day, around a million fewer than in the '90s.

The NYPD is installing thousands of cameras around the city and is using private surveillance installed in major buildings as part of a massive security initiative. In addition, 500 specialized cameras are in place - an image from one of those cameras led officers to a suspect wanted in the brutal assault of a woman in a bar a few weeks ago.

"As cameras proliferate, as we build more of them, they become more instrumental in solving crimes. They also act as a deterrent," said Paul Browne, a Police Department spokesman.

But the MTA, which just last week approved $93 million in service cuts, is in charge of the cameras within the subway system. Of the 4,313 cameras, 2,270 are working and 2,043 aren't.

Some are under construction and the agency is working to bring them online - an additional 900 should be up by June, the agency says. Some just plain don't work because of heat, water or electrical problems.

And about 1,000 are held up by litigation. A division of Lockheed Martin hired to install the systems sued the MTA last year, blaming the agency for delays preventing them from meeting construction deadlines. The MTA countersued, saying that Lockheed Martin had provided faulty products. A Lockheed Martin spokesman would not comment Tuesday.

Meanwhile, about 600 agents stationed in the subways have been laid off as a result of the budget.

A working, comprehensive surveillance system for the city's many bridges and automobile tunnels is monitored 24 hours a day. But some of the weekend patrol shifts for officers who regularly patrol the bridges - and who could respond to a threat within minutes - have been eliminated at the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Greg Lombardi, vice president of the Bridge & Tunnel Officers Benevolent Association, said the cuts will make it more difficult to catch any miscreants.

"The Verrazano is a 2 1/2-mile long bridge. The monitoring system is on Staten Island. If an alarm goes off, or someone sees something, dispatching someone over to Brooklyn could mean the guy gets away," he said.

The MTA said that the plan has been evolving since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, and that additional funding will be made available to add more cameras in priority areas.

"The safety and security of our customers is the MTA's top priority," Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the MTA, said in a statement. "In a post-9/11 world we have worked together to harden our infrastructure, secure sensitive areas and prioritize locations for surveillance cameras."

The mayor said Tuesday that he was concerned about security, and that the city government had a plan in place that would've given enough money to the agency to improve security, as well as quality - but that Albany didn't agree.

"I think it's fair to say the MTA does not have enough money to provide the level of security that people want and that we should have," he said. "If we didn't learn the need for security in the subway system time and time in the past, yesterday or the day before should have taught us again."

Police increased their presence in the New York subway after the suicide attacks Monday in Moscow's subway in the time before rush hour began. Police closely monitor crimes in other cities and adapt their own strategy as needed. After the 2005 bombing in London that killed more than 50 people, bag searches were instituted in the New York subway.

London, one of the most closely watched cities on Earth, is home to an estimated 500,000 cameras, including 10,000 operated by law enforcement agencies.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has made it no secret that he would like more cameras in public spaces, including the subway system, bridges and tunnels and on city streets.

Bloomberg said he's not afraid to ride but cited a recent suicide bomb plot by a militant linked to al-Qaida as a reason New Yorkers must remain vigilant. Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi pleaded guilty in February to plotting to carry out a suicide bombing in the subways.

"The whole plan there was to build some bombs and blow up the subway," he said. "So, make no mistake about it, we have to work very hard to keep this subway system safe."

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