As the trauma of Monday’s explosions at the Boston Marathon shifts to recovery and investigation, public officials are pointing to the key role surveillance cameras will play in investigating the attack.
In Houston, officials say the city’s network, which boasts some 350 cameras downtown and more in other areas, is an effective “force multiplier” for police, whether confronting a terrorist plot or a car burglary. They say Houston’s system must expand, however.
Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis on Tuesday noted the importance of cameras, calling on citizens to submit footage and saying, “it’s our intention to go through every frame of every video that we have.” Members of Congress also have called for wider use of cameras after the bombing.
Some of the best photos of the Boston explosions came from that city’s cameras, said Dennis Storemski, director of Houston’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security.
“Obviously, they’re helpful in managing large events where we actively watch them, but probably just as important or maybe more important is, they provide an excellent investigative tool in the event that you have an incident, whether it be a crime or a terrorist incident,” Storemski said. “We want to and we intend to expand it.”
Houston’s roughly 350 downtown cameras are aided by cameras along Metro’s light rail line, in the Texas Medical Center, on highways, around stadiums, in parks, along Washington Avenue and the Houston Ship Channel, Storemski said. The network has been funded with $14 million in federal homeland security grants, which direct the cameras to areas with heavy pedestrian traffic or critical infrastructure.
The University of Houston also deploys about 1,000 cameras, and area municipalities, including Sugar Land, have discussed adding their own.
The use of surveillance cameras increased nationwide after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Hsiao-Ming Wang, professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown. Houston, Dallas and Austin have installed surveillance cameras in their downtowns, and New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have larger networks. The United States, however, lags other nations in the use of cameras, Wang said.
“The main reason we are far behind the United Kingdom and some European and Asian countries is human rights,” Wang said. “A lot of people think the installation of cameras is privacy invasion.”
Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said her group has concerns about monitoring of citizens, and urged city leaders to be calm pending an outcome in Boston. If the crime is solved by “old-fashioned police work,” she said, that may inform officials’ thinking on the future use of surveillance.
“This is a horrible tragedy, and we’d be reluctant to be critical of any decisions being made in Boston at this point, or the decisions they made beforehand in terms of the way they were surveilling their city,” Burke said.
City Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said privacy concerns can be avoided as long as cameras cover public venues. He said Houston’s system must expand to cover areas such as the Galleria and Greenway Plaza.
“They may have some cameras, but they don’t have the technology they should have,” Bradford said. “We cannot staff adequately to protect all of our large arenas and venues where people congregate every day in this city, but technology is a force multiplier.”
Some video cameras are installed by private businesses for their own security purposes, but can turn up footage of crimes outside their venues. In Boston, for example, police sought video footage from private businesses near the marathon finish. Several media outlets have reported that footage of a possible suspect in the blasts was recorded by a Lord and Taylor store camera.
City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police officer, said Houston’s size makes it more challenging for the city to deploy an effective camera network.
“There will always be gaps in coverage,” he said. “We just have to be mindful of that, but that shouldn’t stop us from still using them.”