Boston police, buoyed by the success of their controversial surveillance cameras in investigating several homicide cases, plan to increase their use in areas of the city plagued by violence, officials said.
In two fatal shootings in Dorchester and Roxbury this year, the crimes were clearly captured on tape - at such an eerily close range that some investigators privately remarked that the killings almost appeared staged for the cameras.
Based in part on the footage, a suspect in one of the shootings was apprehended and is awaiting trial. Police have not made an arrest in the other shooting, but are pursuing leads based on taped footage.
"It's a very effective tool," said Superintendent Robert Dunford, who is second-in-command of Boston police. "We have active investigations that are being supported by evidence from the cameras."
While police say they believe that the cameras complement regular patrols, some activists and civil rights organizations say the devices are intrusive and are being used as a substitute for officers on the beat.
Councilor Chuck Turner, whose district includes parts of Roxbury and Dorchester, expressed shock last week after learning that the Police Department is using cameras in parts of Roxbury without notifying residents in the area.
"It was my understanding that they [Boston police] would hold community meetings before doing that, just like they did in Chinatown," Turner said.
Dunford said the department does not normally publicize where the cameras are placed, but in Chinatown it was "a different situation because it was the first site."
Police held a series of talks with business owners and residents in Chinatown in 2005 before installing the cameras at intersections that had experienced an increase in drug activity and violent crime. Eight cameras remain there.
Michael Wong, coordinator of Chinatown's crime watch program, said how effective the cameras are remains a mystery to many area residents.
"After the police put them up, we haven't heard anything from them. I don't know if they have anybody to watch them," he said. "The crime here has gone down a lot, but I don't think it is because of the cameras. We're walking the streets. If criminals see our crime watch, they go away."
The department has 25 cameras, each costing about $20,000, that can pan, tilt, and zoom, and can be attached to a wall or roof in less than an hour. Regulations require approval from property owners before police can mount the cameras. The department purchased the devices in 2004, and they were first used at the Democratic National Convention.
Since then, the cameras have been used to monitor large special events, such as the Red Sox World Series celebration and, last month, the Caribbean Carnival. Dunford confirmed that cameras are in hot spots in Roxbury, but he would not disclose their locations.
The department can also tap into other camera surveillance systems, including those provided by the Department of Homeland Security to monitor areas of the city that may be susceptible to terrorist attacks such as the harbor, parks, and evacuation routes.
Chris Ott, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, questioned the emphasis on fancy gizmos to replace old-fashioned police work.
"For whatever reason, there is a tendency to look at technical solutions to nontechnical problems," Ott said. "We'd encourage people to ask questions about whether there are simpler methods, perhaps better lighting or more community policing."
Dunford said that while community policing is a priority, the funds do not exist to put more police on the streets.
"The cameras are a force multiplier," he said. "We try to put out as many walking beats as we can, and then enhance those units with the cameras."
Dunford said that the department operates the cameras with "strict protocols" to prevent misuse. The making of copies for use as evidence is closely monitored and tapes are shelved for a specific period of time before they are rerecorded.
He declined to comment on whether the cameras are being used to track crime suspects by providing a timeline of their arrivals and departures from home, work, or other locations. "I can say that the department attempts to use the cameras to the full capacity that we can."
Ott said this possibility raised serious concerns.
"What kind of society do we want to live in where everyone can be under surveillance, where as soon as you're named a suspect, police can monitor every move you make," Ott said.
Police highlighted several cases in which the cameras have helped their investigations.
In the early morning of Feb. 8 this year, Tyrice Brown, 18, of Roxbury was fatally shot on Warren Street. Police and private cameras captured the image of a suspect, identified as Jose M. Delacruz, 21, of Dorchester.
"The camera footage was an immense help in solving that homicide," said Boston police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll. Delacruz was arrested in Delaware and is awaiting trial in Boston.
Police are still searching for a suspect in the slaying of James Williams, 24, of Dorchester, shot to death March 28 on Blue Hill Avenue. Footage of the crime captured on a police surveillance camera provided leads to police.
While the cameras have captured crime, they have also been key in refuting numerous allegations, Dunford said.
Several weeks ago, a man told police he was shot at the intersection of Blue Hill Avenue and Quincy Street, but a camera revealed that the man had not been in the area.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said surveillance cameras, both public and private, are a valuable law enforcement tool.
"It's certainly a wise policy decision to implement them. The reasonable doubt bar has been raised in the past decade or so, and jurors expect much more now," Conley said. "With surveillance video, we can then give the jury a window through which they can see the incident themselves."
Conley said no case has come through the courts yet in which footage from a Boston police camera has been used, but added, "That's probably a function of it being a relatively new system. I believe that as time goes on, we will start to utilize the police's system more."