What security cameras can’t see

A notice outside a Brownsville housing complex

By Simone Sebastian

Thomas Boker stalked a 30-year-old woman for blocks as she walked a familiar path to her apartment in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood.

He shadowed her as she headed to the Van Dyke housing projects. He stepped into the elevator she got on. When the doors opened on her floor, the woman stepped into the hallway and Boker grabbed her from behind.

He brandished a knife.

“I will kill you if you don’t stop screaming.”

Boker, according to news reports, pulled his victim into the stairwell and forced her to climb. When they reached a landing on the 14th floor, he raped her.

It was a crime that police claimed would be a lot harder to commit. A multi-million dollar surveillance camera system staffed by police officers is supposed to catch suspicious actions. But Boker’s rape highlights key shortcomings in the video network.

The hour-long nightmare in 2008 occurred in sight of Van Dyke’s surveillance cameras. Live footage streamed onto 30 television screens monitored by two police officers in a room within a block of the woman’s building.

But the officers on duty said they saw nothing.

It wasn’t the first crime Boker pulled off under the eyes of Van Dyke’s surveillance cameras. Over four weeks in early 2008, Boker committed three rapes and two robberies in New York City’s public housing buildings.  Each time, police in the surveillance room said they saw nothing.

That is not the only case where the city’s crime-fighting system failed to prevent assaults, and is a dramatic example in the dispute over whether video surveillance stops crime. Though police insist the cameras help solve cases, the overall track record is unclear. City officials, in turns, cite contradictory figures, fight requests to release crime figures and, after a public records request lasting more than a year, disclosed details that cast doubt about whether cameras have led to any significant effect at Brooklyn projects.

At the same time, some city officials are questioning whether the camera system- developed for more than $50 million, and requiring millions more in maintenance and operating expenses – are worth the cost. And New York is not alone: studies elsewhere have raised questions about how well video systems really work in fighting crime.

These video surveillance systems have proliferated throughout New York City’s public housing complexes during the past 14 years. Today, cameras are wired in about a quarter of the New York City Housing Authority’s 336 projects.  The equipment is a key part of a police program called Video Interactive Patrol Enhanced Response, or VIPER.

Police officials tout it for working on three levels: deterring criminals from striking, catching crimes underway, and providing key evidence to solve crimes.

In Boker’s case, VIPER struck out on all three.

After failing to see the crime when it was happening, the New York Police Department went back through the video tape. Police told reporters that Boker was actually captured on 30 minutes of video as he stalked, threatened and raped his 30-year-old victim. But video images were of poor quality. Pictures of him were indecipherable. The images were so bad that investigators needed a sketch artist to draw a composite of Boker’s face so they could circulate a picture of him to the public and help with his capture.

When Boker was finally arrested two weeks after the rape, it wasn’t video of the crime that did him in. It was old-fashioned evidence: his fingerprints in the stairwell and a victim’s identification of him in a line up.

That isn’t how the video system was supposed to work.

Since the first cameras were installed in New York public housing in 1997, officials from the police and housing agency have touted VIPER and its less-expensive sibling, Closed-Circuit Television, as successful in fighting crime.

VIPER is owned and run by the NYPD, and is wired in 15 city housing authority developments across the city, including Van Dyke, according to 2010 data from the housing agency. In addition, CCTV systems are run by the public housing agency. Its images are not live streamed. Instead, they are recorded, stored for seven days and retrieved when crimes are reported.

All these cameras are mounted in busy areas like lobbies, or in secluded places prone to crime, like elevators. They are also placed outside buildings to monitor courtyards, playgrounds and walkways. No cameras track residential floors because of tenant privacy concerns. Police officers monitor live images from VIPER cameras in surveillance rooms tucked away nearby in the projects.

Despite all the effort – the expense of developing the surveillance network and the staffing by police – a key question is whether the system has cut crime.

The police and housing authority have credited video system with rapid drops in lawlessness.  At Van Dyke, for instance, 117 major felonies were committed in 2000, according to NYPD data. VIPER cameras were installed in 2001. The next year, 78 major felonies were reported – a 33 percent drop. That far surpassed the reduction in crime elsewhere in the city, where the major crime rate fell just 17 percent.

But the story since then is far less clear. City officials give contradictory accounts about crime reduction, have fought inquiries to disclose more details, and, perhaps more troubling, under an open records request, were unable to show any overall significant success in Brooklyn.

STATISTICS THAT DON’T ADD UP AND NOT DISCLOSED

City agencies sometimes cite figures that are at odds. For instance, months after Boker’s series of rapes and assaults at Van Dyke in 2008, Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne told The New York Times that VIPER has been a success. He claimed that housing projects saw crime drop an average 35 percent a year after being installed. But just a year earlier, the city housing authority, in a published newsletter, told residents that the average drop in crime was 25 percent.

NYCHA spokeswoman Sheila Stainback couldn’t explain the contradictions.

“I have no idea” where the numbers came from, Stainback said. “I don’t know if those numbers were made spontaneously and could not be supported.”

Statistics are not an academic discussion. Police and housing officials cite successes regularly when they press the cash-strapped city to fund the massive video surveillance operation.

Meanwhile, city officials fought repeated requests by the CUNY news service to provide more details about crime in city housing projects, and in areas with VIPER cameras. For more than a year, both the housing authority and the police refused repeated requests to release crime statistics for public housing developments where video surveillance has been installed.

Housing authority spokesman Brent Grier told the CUNY news service at one point that the agency refused to disclose data because “there are certain statistics they wouldn’t want published.”

It was not the first time city officials refused to release detailed accounts about crime in housing projects. While the police publish weekly summary statistics about major crimes in each precinct across the city, they do not release separate figures for murders and other serious offenses in public housing projects.

The New York City Council criticized this lack of transparency in a 2004 investigative report about safety problems in housing projects. In that report, the City Council recommended police change, and have its housing bureau post summary figures for crime in housing projects.

“Members of the public, and NYCHA residents in particular, are entitled to know the incidence of crime in public housing developments,” the report stated.

Then-Queens councilman Eric Gioia, who chaired the Council committee that wrote the report, said “it’s incredibly disappointing” that the housing authority is not more transparent about crime rates.

Gioia supported spending for video surveillance systems while in office. But he believes housing authority needs to better assess the video system’s effectiveness. “What you find with public housing is it’s close your eyes, cross your fingers and hope for the best,” Gioia said. “You need to measure [the crime rate] before you can manage it.”

BROOKLYN HOUSING CRIME DROP NOT CLEAR

Perhaps no better place underscores the use of questionable crime statistics than Brooklyn.

Under a CUNY news service request citing state open records laws, the agency relented after more than a year and provided details about Brooklyn housing projects where cameras have been installed.  The data outlined major crimes that occurred in 21 housing developments during the last year before the cameras were operating, and the first full year after they were in use.

There were clear indications of success. Six developments saw crime drop more than 35 percent over two years. Eleven others also saw crime fall, but less than 35 percent.

But there were also places where crime did not drop. Four developments – Williams Plaza, Atlantic Terminal Site 4B, Gowanus and Independence Towers – saw crime rates actually increase after the cameras were installed.

All told, Brooklyn sites where camera systems were installed averaged a 3 percent increase in crime.

Housing authority representatives repeatedly refused to discuss the increase in crime in their Brooklyn projects.

Meanwhile, Stainback said the housing authority is reconsidering the impact of its 14-year-old video surveillance system to determine if the cameras are worth mounting maintenance costs.

While the city pays for buying and installing the surveillance systems, the cost of upkeep comes out of the housing authority’s budget.

“They are even more expensive to maintain,” Stainback said. “We’re re-evaluating the system.”

The agency was slated to spend $30.9 million in capital project funds on its video surveillance systems last fiscal year, more than it budgeted to spend on heating and plumbing in 2010. For that amount, the police could fund the salaries of 8,500 entry-level cops for a year.

And the cash put into maintaining the security cameras each year has soared more five times since 2006, when NYCHA spent just $4.8 million on maintenance.

NEW YORK NOT ALONE

But New York’s housing projects are not the only place where questions have been raised about whether cameras cut crime. Surveillance cameras have proliferated in cities around the world during the past two decades. Yet, studies of their effectiveness have drawn varied conclusions about whether they work.

A 2008 study by the University of California in Berkeley found no significant change in the number of homicides, rapes, assaults and robberies in the areas surrounding two-year-old surveillance cameras installed in San Francisco’s most dangerous neighborhood, according to The San Francisco Examiner.

Just last year, a New York University study of crime rates in two private Manhattan housing complexes, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town, concluded that there was no evidence that video surveillance had an overall impact on serious crime.

In Great Britian, a 2005 report for the United Kingdom’s anti-terrorism department found just two of 13 security systems evaluated recorded a statistically significant reduction in crime.

Yet, the authors warned against drawing conclusions from those figures because not all serious crimes are reported. At the same time, it criticized government agencies for overstating the benefits of video surveillance and setting unrealistic expectations: “In short, [CCTV] was oversold – by successive governments – as the answer to crime problems.”

TENANTS WAIT FOR CAMERAS

The number of surveillance cameras installed in NYCHA housing properties more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, reaching 6,300. The cameras cost about $175,000 each. Funding has come primarily from the New York City Council, which has earmarked an increasingly large chunk of its discretionary dollars and federal funding to the security project since 2004.

City Council members said they are responding to residents’ demands for the cameras.

For instance, after years of lobbying from the Louis H. Pink Houses tenants association, elected officials, including Councilman Charles Barron, allocated $4.5 million to install CCTV systems there and in three other East New York developments. The funding was unveiled with great fanfare. Barron and housing chairman John B. Rhea held an enthusiastic press conference with other city officials in October 2009.

“Beginning tomorrow and after we install these cameras, you have much more sense of security in terms of how you feel, but also in reality,” Rhea told the crowd of residents. “The data has shown that crime goes down 25 percent – 25 percent – immediately after installation of cameras in housing developments.”

Then he added, for emphasis: “That is real.”

Though Brooklyn has the most public housing apartments in the city, surveillance cameras are far more common in Manhattan and Queens.

Agency figures show that, as of 2010, in Brooklyn, there was a camera for every 42 apartments. In Manhattan, there was one for every 32. And in Queens the rate was far higher — one for every 12 apartments.

And the demand is not receding. Roberto Napoleon, president of the Baruch Houses tenant association on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, wants the surveillance system. He said he as pressed elected officials for several years. “Nothing has happened,” he lamented. “According to public officials and housing, they don’t have enough money.”

He said the lack of cameras has led to crime. The area saw a rash of attacks against Asian women in the spring of 2010 — five assaults in one week. Most of the attacks occurred at the Baruch Houses. Napoleon believes that’s because of the absence of video cameras.

“They are afraid of the cameras,” he said of criminals. “Those people are afraid of those cameras because they know they’ll be able to identify them. They’ll think twice.”

At Brooklyn’s Van Dyke Houses, where Thomas Boker’s 2008 rape spree went undetected by the development’s VIPER system for weeks, current tenants association President Lisa Kenner conceded the system’s track record is spotty. Still, she thinks it’s worth the money.

“The cameras really help with the crime here, I believe,” she said. “I’m not saying people don’t get robbed. But I remember when it was shoot ’em up bang bang. Those cameras brought crime down.”

Kenner said unlike the Boker assaults, there are also cases where cameras worked. She cited a robbery last year, when two men took jewelry from a groundskeeper. The crime was captured on video and the pair was later arrested, she said.

But she admitted there were other times the cameras did not live up to their promise. A senior resident has been robbed twice this year by people who followed her into the elevators. They had hats to hide their faces from surveillance video, and attacked her in an unmonitored hallway outside of her apartment door.

Kenner said the problem is not just the cameras, but shoddy housing maintenance that leave wide areas dangerous because of lights not working at night. “If a person gets robbed down by that walkway and the lights are out, if there’s people sitting in the [VIPER] surveillance room, how are they gonna see it?” she questioned.

2 Comments

  1. “The number of surveillance cameras installed in NYCHA housing properties more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, reaching 6,300. The cameras cost about $175,000 each. ”

    The above statement is highly unlikely to be accurate. At the price quoted in the article, the cost of all 6,300 cameras would be more than one billion dollars.

  2. Pingback: NYC residences want more surveillance cameras. Should you, too? - MySecuritySign Blog