Watching from a distance

Police cameras form a wide net over Boston area

At East Milton Square, Gary Howard installed a security camera as part of a network police will use to monitor for crime and potential terrorist activity. At East Milton Square, Gary Howard installed a security camera as part of a network police will use to monitor for crime and potential terrorist activity. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / May 3, 2010

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For years, police around the country have used cameras to catch speeding drivers. In Boston, police have installed a system that detects the discharge of firearms in parts of the city. And at the city’s Real Time Crime Center, police officers and civilians use camera feeds to monitor criminal activity on city streets.

Now, in and around Boston, the federal government is financing the installation of security cameras under bridges, on thoroughfares, and around bustling shopping districts as part of an antiterrorism campaign.

Last week, a camera was installed in East Milton Square, one of 10 that police say will be up and running by the summer. In Quincy, where seven cameras have been set up since last year, police hope to add at least two more this year. In Everett, 16 to 20 cameras are trained on the port, major road arteries, and industrial complexes — potential terrorist targets.

Police in those communities say they are hoping to link their camera feeds, so officers can see what’s going on outside their jurisdiction and keep an eye on other towns and cities.

Police say the technology would help officers track a suspect fleeing from one town to another. Quincy police watching ferries leave their docks for Boston could tap into the Hub’s cameras to track the vessels. Police in understaffed departments responding to an emergency could ask officers in other jurisdictions to monitor their cameras for crimes they might be missing.

But civil libertarians are skeptical.

“We’re building a system that creates a net of surveillance over everyone in the Boston metropolitan region,’’ said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “It’s a net of surveillance that allows local police and federal agents to monitor and record our every movement without any oversight of how the information will be used now or in the long run.’’

Nine communities are part of the program, which relied on $4.6 million from the US Department of Homeland Security for the cameras: Boston, Quincy, Winthrop, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Everett, Chelsea, and Revere.

The cities and towns are considered part of an urban area the federal government has deemed to be at high risk for terrorist attacks. They make up one of 64 such areas nationwide that come under a program known as the Urban Area Security Initiative, which is receiving $832.5 million this fiscal year, said Chris Ortman, a Homeland Security spokesman.

“We focus these grants on the cities that face the highest risk,’’ he said. “We continue to improve our risk assessment tools to ensure we are calculating these risks in the smartest and most efficient way possible.’’

Milton received about $175,000 for its cameras through a US Department of Justice grant, but town officials also plan to link their camera feeds with those of nearby communities.

The cameras, and the ability to watch emergencies in other towns, will help officers figure out quickly what kind of help to give, said Lieutenant Bob Gillan, supervisor of the Quincy Police Homeland Security Unit.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,’’ he said. “If we can see it that much faster, we know what’s going on.’’

Law enforcement officials in most of the communities said they have met with little or no resistance to the cameras. Gillan said the cameras do not pick up anything beyond what the average passerby on the street can see. “Anything we’re looking at is completely public,’’ Gillan said.

Milton Police Chief Richard Wells said the potential of the cameras to help investigations is enormous, noting how the devices in Brookline quickly led to the capture of two rape and kidnapping suspects last year.

“Imagine if your son or daughter were the victim of a serious crime, a rape or a murder,’’ he said. “Wouldn’t you want law enforcement to have every capability to bring that person to justice?’’

But police in two other communities have met with opposition.

The program stalled in Cambridge last year when the City Council unanimously voted against activating eight cameras that had been installed around the city. And in Brookline, the 12 police cameras are used only at night, a compromise reached after Town Meeting passed a resolution to take them down.

In Cambridge, City Councilor Marjorie Decker said police tried to justify the need for the cameras by explaining they would help emergency officials if there were a sudden need to evacuate the city. The councilors were not convinced, she said.

In many of the other communities, police say they already have the technology to connect their cameras. Most departments are now trying to agree on the protocol for tapping into each other’s systems. .

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said it is also important that agencies know which officers from other departments are logging in to watch a video to make sure no one is abusing the technology.

“There are potential privacy issues with the cameras,’’ he said. “We want to track who was looking at the camera.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at

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