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LIRR passenger cars would get security cameras under MTA proposal

A surveillance camera on the outside of the

A surveillance camera on the outside of the LIRR at the Jamaica Station in Queens, June 10, 2014. Credit: Uli Seit

The Long Island Rail Road is considering a plan to install security cameras in passenger cars, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said.

Transit and law enforcement officials said the cameras, which would also be put in Metro-North trains, could be a valuable tool in protecting riders. But some commuter and civil liberties advocates are raising concerns about invading LIRR riders' privacy.

"It doesn't necessarily make us any safer. It just provides us with a feeling of safety," said Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Just because we think it ought to work . . . doesn't mean that it will."

The plan is part of a broader effort by the MTA to improve safety on its commuter railroads after Metro-North's derailment in December that killed four people and injured dozens. The engineer dozed off as the train sped around a sharp curve in the Bronx.

The proposal came after a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation in February calling on the MTA to install outward-facing cameras at the front of trains and cameras inside locomotive engineers' cabs "to verify that train crew actions are in accordance with rules and procedures that are essential to safety . . . as well as train operating conditions."

In March, the MTA put out a request for a proposal seeking a vendor for the cameras. Updating progress on the project at a July meeting, LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski revealed that the agency was looking to install cameras "also within the passenger compartments."

MTA spokesman Salvatore Arena later confirmed that while putting cameras inside engineers' cabs is the primary focus, "the RFP also seeks a plan for camera systems inside passenger cars, should the LIRR or MNR opt for such a system."

"To further help improve the safety and security on trains, staff of both railroads, the MTA police, and proposing vendors have had preliminary discussions, and will continue to have more substantive discussions, about where cameras could be positioned in passenger areas of trains," Arena said.

Board votes in October

The MTA is reviewing proposals from vendors and the agency's full board will likely vote on a contract in October. Installation of the camera systems would begin in the second quarter of 2015, Arena said.

The systems' cost, to be determined, would be funded from the MTA's operating and capital budgets, officials said. "There are definitely a lot of issues that will need to be addressed," including riders' privacy, said William Henderson, executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR and Metro-North Commuter Councils.

"People have also raised the issues . . . [saying] 'I don't really like being tracked by cameras every moment of my life,' " Henderson said. "There's personal privacy issues. But there's also a security issue on the other side."

Michael O'Meara, president of the MTA Police Benevolent Association, said security cameras would be a valuable resource for police to investigate incidents on trains.

Although the rate of crimes committed on LIRR trains has remained largely stable over the past five years, the number of robberies on trains has increased from one in 2009 to five in 2013, according to MTA police. They have previously attributed increases in thefts across the MTA system -- in trains, on subways, at platforms -- to the mobile technology boom that made smartphones and tablets targets for thieves.

MTA statistics for the past five years show that in 2009, there were seven felony assaults on LIRR trains. In 2013, there were five. Incidents of grand larceny on the LIRR totaled 34 in 2009 and 38 in 2013, the agency reported.

The LIRR -- the country's busiest commuter railroad -- provided 83 million rides last year.

"Thank God we do a very good job of policing and we don't have a very high crime rate onboard trains," O'Meara said. "But it is certainly a tool in law enforcement to help us after the fact."

Used for years

Other commuter railroads and transit agencies throughout the United States have used onboard electronic surveillance for years, including the MTA's city buses. About 28 percent of the MTA's bus fleet is equipped with cameras. Arena said the cameras have served as a deterrent to crime and aided in the identification, arrest and prosecution of criminals.

Typically, onboard video cameras are not monitored in real time, but rather save video onto hard drives that can later be accessed for viewing as needed.

Drew Kerr, spokesman for Metro Transit, serving Minnesota's Twin Cities, said security cameras on its commuter rail trains have also provided evidence in slip-and-fall and other noncriminal incidents onboard trains.

"We've seen value in that investment," said Kerr, who added that he was unaware of any negative feedback from riders concerned with privacy. "We have signs on all vehicles that inform customers that they are entering an area that's being recorded. There's transparency there."

Dorothy Moses Schulz, of Interactive Elements Inc. -- a New York City consulting firm specializing in transit security, said transit providers around the country have been able to successfully navigate concerns about passenger privacy by selling them on the security benefits of cameras.

"A lot of this is where the marketing comes in," said Moses Schulz, a former commanding officer with the Metro-North police. "It's a hard road. You don't want to be too clear that nobody's monitoring it, because then it may not have the desired effect of deterrence. On the other hand, you don't want people to think it's being monitored all the time."

Sinha, of the civil liberties union, said it is imperative that the MTA not overstep its boundaries in the name of security. If the MTA does go forward with its plan, Sinha said the railroads should "promptly discard" any recordings of customers unless there is an injury report or pending criminal investigation.

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