Cameras on Watch Across L.A.
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Cameras on Watch Across L.A.
On Metro Rail, in city buildings, on freeways, the public is under surveillance. Officials see aids in fighting crime and terrorism.

Times Staff | July 10, 2005
By Jessica Gresko and Natasha Lee

Ramona Escareno once watched a man run naked along a Metro Rail platform. She has observed people jumping down onto the tracks to retrieve dropped items. She's watched fights break out, including one in which a woman beat up a man. But mostly, she's seen people patiently waiting for trains.

"They know they're being watched," said Escareno, one of the employees who monitor feeds from about 400 cameras placed at stations along the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's rail lines.

Every day in the Southland, cameras watch as citizens ride Metro Rail, conduct business in government buildings and sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on freeways.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Los Angeles and other major cities nationwide scrambled to install the latest in security surveillance equipment. The technology has sharply improved since the days when surveillance cameras were linked by wires to VCRs. Now, recording in some locations is digital and controlled by personal computers. Sophisticated high-resolution cameras can scan distances of six blocks or more.

"Prior to 9/11, security was the last thing to be put in; it was typically an afterthought after the building was built. Now it's usually thought about first," said John Russell, president of RD Systems. The Tustin-based company has been installing security systems in Los Angeles city-owned buildings for 22 years. Since 9/11, RD has been inundated with business, he said.

Such camera surveillance has again come to the fore since the bombings in Britain last week. Officials in London, which leads the world in video surveillance — with 6,000 such cameras in the Underground alone — hope cameras will reveal more about the bombings, which killed at least 49 people and wounded more than 700.

Although Los Angeles, like most U.S. cities, remains far behind London in the scope of its surveillance, officials hope cameras here will help fight crime — and even terrorism. But that, say others, may be far too ambitious a goal.

"What happened in London was horrible, but video surveillance was obviously not an effective deterrent despite the fact that London was the most surveyed city in the free world," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty project for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's foolish law enforcement."

He suggests rather that video surveillance creates a so-called displacement effect, moving crime from within a camera's view to outside its reach.

"What Britain has given us is a huge laboratory. One would hope that the U.S. would look at the realities of public-operated cameras," Steinhardt said. "There's a false sense of security, but there is no real security."

Still, government officials say the equipment can be useful.

"I don't think electronic monitoring can prevent a terrorist attack, but it can certainly document an attack so that law enforcement and other authorities can investigate," said Chief Special Officer Gary Newton of the Los Angeles Department of General Services. His staff oversees security for 900 city-owned buildings, a small portion of which have video cameras.

At the MTA surveillance-monitoring headquarters in Willowbrook, just south of Watts, workers such as Escareno can react quickly to things they see on camera.

They have access to the public address system at each station and can broadcast pointed reminders instantly anywhere there's a problem. Most often, that involves reminders about not eating or smoking in the station or warnings to passengers who get too close to the platform's edge.

Taped feeds, which are stored for three to six months, are sometimes reviewed later. Lawyers have requested tapes to document how injuries happened, and law enforcement officials can review the videos to help solve crimes, said Byron England, the headquarters' manager.

But not all the system's lines are automatically taped, and the cameras installed when the stations were built no longer represent the latest technology, he said. Even before the London bombings, he added, the MTA had planned to upgrade.

Other L.A. transit systems are also monitored via camera. Almost all of the MTA's buses have cameras that save still pictures, which can be retrieved for review by law enforcement. But there are no comparable cameras inside Metro Rail or Metrolink trains. And the 350 to 400 cameras that the California Department of Transportation has peering down on the area's freeways are solely for real-time traffic monitoring.

At City Hall and surrounding government buildings, Thursday's bombings prompted security personnel to watch their 200 cameras more diligently. The cameras help keep watch over the Civic Center as well as some outlying buildings.

"We're raising our eyebrow," said Dwayne Healy, security technology administrator for the General Services Department. In response to 9/11, the city upgraded its analog surveillance system, switching to a digital system that has greater capabilities, such as being able to read a car license plate on the street from a camera located on top of a building.

The staff of 125, made up of both city employees and contract security guards, is trained to be extra vigilant about slow vehicles near government buildings and cars parked in no-parking zones.

"It takes a very disciplined person; you cannot just throw a warm body in front of a camera," Healy said. "As the threat level increases, our response increases too."

Russell, whose company has provided surveillance equipment to the city, says Los Angeles municipal buildings are equipped with the highest technology he has available.

Despite the jump in the security business, video surveillance in public arenas here ranks far behind that in London.

"As a general principle, the Brits are much further ahead — indeed, ahead of much of the Western allied nations — in the use of cameras in public places," said Jack Riley, an expert in homeland security at Rand Corp.

Still, Los Angeles facilities are slowly improving their systems. The Port of Los Angeles, Metrolink and Metro Rail all have plans to add to or upgrade their camera systems.

In July 2004, Metrolink received $1.97 million from a Homeland Security grant. The commuter rail network plans to use the money to purchase security equipment, including extra locks, guard booths, high-end alarms, communication systems and bomb-detection systems, said spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell.

Later this year, Metrolink will finish showing its board of directors its request for how the funds would be allocated, including a portion for additional security cameras, Tyrrell said.

That worries video-surveillance opponents, who have argued for years that the practice intrudes on individuals' privacy and civil liberties. "Do I feel like [surveillance] invades my privacy? Yes, to some degree. Do I feel like it protects us against crime? No," the ACLU's Steinhardt said.

But officials say video surveillance can help deter crime.

Since cameras began operating along Hollywood Boulevard in March, police have been averaging an arrest per day in connection with the surveillance, said Lt. Ray Lombardo of the Hollywood Division.

"I am not aware of one single complaint," he said. "Hollywood is going through a refurbishing and rebuilding; crime is starting to drop; and we want tourism to flourish and we want people to come."

The five cameras are at the community's busiest intersections, including Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, and are wired into the Hollywood police station, where they are controlled by a joystick that allows a camera to pick up details as small as the names on the Walk of Fame.

Digitally recorded images are stored for 30 days, and still images can be blown up to create fliers used to alert the public about suspected criminals, Lombardo said. The Los Angeles Police Department plans to eventually have at least 16 cameras along Hollywood Boulevard, he said.

But he acknowledged the limitations of surveillance. "A well planned terrorist attack is probably going to be pulled off with or without cameras," he said.

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911:  The Road to Tyranny