Nassau police can access hundreds of surveillance cams to fight crime

Ethel Hoenig, police communications operator supervisor, sits at

Ethel Hoenig, police communications operator supervisor, sits at a command center where monitors stream footage to help dispatch and officers react more efficiently to emergencies. (Aug. 23, 2013). (Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger)

A high-tech surveillance system called the Nassau County Domain Awareness program, linking hundreds of cameras that can stream live footage from public and private places to the police communications center in Westbury, is up and running, officials said.

The cameras are active at Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City, Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, at parks and beaches in the Town of Oyster Bay, and will soon be operational in more than a dozen public school districts, with plans to add to the network additional cameras through voluntary "public-private partnerships," the police department said. The system began coming online earlier this year.

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Police said they did not know the precise number of cameras already accessible to them, but said there will eventually be thousands across Nassau. Currently, they have to be accessed by police individually through the locations where they are based. That would change under an upgrade under consideration by the county that would integrate all Domain Awareness system cameras into a single network that police can monitor from designated computers, police said.

The county is vetting five companies specializing in such technology, and officials said they plan to choose one soon. They declined to name the companies being considered.

Police said they do not monitor the cameras full time but only during crime investigations or emergencies. Still, civil liberties advocates have voiced concerns.

Authorities say they hope the system will eventually be capable of surveilling those areas within the county -- including houses of worship, colleges and universities -- seen as vulnerable to mass shootings or terrorism. Locations in Nassau that voluntarily sign on to the program also provide police with digitized floor plans of their buildings. At some point, police expect they will be able to remotely maneuver cameras in many of the locations, allowing them to track a roving suspect or zoom in on a suspicious object.

Nassau Police Chief of Department Steve Skrynecki said the current system will be critical during emergencies.

"We can get real-time access if someone enters any of these areas with a gun or other dangerous device," he said. "This will help us react to all types of emergencies. It's an invaluable tool. . . . We do not have the ability to look in anytime we want to. We do not have permission to do that, nor do we want to."

Inspired by NYPD

Development of Nassau's camera program was inspired in part by New York City's Domain Awareness System -- the so-called "Ring of Steel" -- which collects and analyzes video and information from thousands of New York Police Department cameras, various law enforcement databases, license plate readers and radiation detectors. Several other large cities, including Baltimore and Los Angeles, have similar networks in place.

The system in its current form did not require approval from the county legislature, county spokesman Brian Nevin said. County officials said they could not immediately provide the costs incurred by the county so far. The police department said those costs have been minimal. Nevin said the system is based on existing technology at each property and written agreements with participants. Participating locations pay no fees to the county or vice versa.

"Nassau County is leading the nation with this cutting-edge crime fighting tool that truly assists police with investigations and helps law enforcement quickly identify suspects," County Executive Edward Mangano said in a statement.

Written permission

Rules governing the police department's access to private cameras are laid out in agreements negotiated by county lawyers, police said. Officials said they would not divulge details of those agreements because of security concerns.

"In its most simplistic form, these agreements state that if 911 is called to report an emergency at these locations, that would trigger our ability -- with the location's permission -- to tap into and monitor their system," Skrynecki said.

Higher costs to the county are expected once it chooses a vendor to implement a new part of the program -- referred to by law enforcement officials as Physical Security Information Management (PSIM) -- that will organize and manage the existing camera network, officials said.

No timetable or cost for that was available. Police said at least some of the funding will likely come from federal Department of Homeland Security grants. "It's premature to provide a cost estimate," Nevin said. "It will likely require legislative approval."

Nassau officials say the camera system is a "force multiplier," allowing authorities to reap the benefits of having electronic eyes on the ground in many areas without having to assign officers there full time.

Concerns over privacy

Civil liberties advocates, however, said they are concerned about the program.

"The use of large-scale public video surveillance raises serious privacy concerns," said Jason Starr, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Nassau County chapter. "It is critical that clear rules and procedures be established for the retention, storage and destruction of video surveillance images, and for access to and dissemination of such video images."

Skrynecki said safeguards are in place to protect the public and prevent abuse. They include oversight of the system by supervisors in the police communications bureau and a stipulation that each participant has final say over when -- and for how long -- police can monitor their closed-circuit television systems.

Additional rules governing police use of the network are being drafted, Skrynecki said.

Officials at properties participating in the program said they believe it helps protect the public.

"It's not a privacy violation," said Dennis Sheridan, vice president for administration at Winthrop-University Hospital. "It's for security only and remains in the control of Winthrop. The system is already in place."

Marta Kane, a spokeswoman for the Town of Oyster Bay, said Nassau police can access footage from all town cameras. She could not immediately provide their total number. "Pretty much every camera we do have is outdoors, mostly at parks and beaches," Kane said.

Nassau's Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which gives police access to cameras in the Roslyn and Plainedge school districts as part of the program, said it will bring the system online in Oyster Bay, Island Park and nine other school districts.

Nassau County residents interviewed at locations under surveillance had mixed feelings about the program.

"If the police use it properly, it can help them respond to tragedies, and if they don't [use it properly], it would be un-American," said Robin DeHaan of Mineola, as she shopped in Roosevelt Field mall. "That's a heck of a lot of power in one organization's hands."

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