On a bright morning in September, a man in a green shirt and sunglasses crossed Broadway. A quarter-mile away, at police headquarters (220 Washington St), Deputy Chief Paul Upton watched the man dart between two cars.
“We obviously don’t usually do this,” says Upton. He shifts to another screen showing an SUV cross through Davis Square. “We don’t have people downstairs all day long just using the cameras.”
During the past three years, Somerville police have relied on a network of nine surveillance cameras. Upton calls them “a second set of eyes,” used for emergencies rather than Big Brother-like monitoring.
But the man in the green shirt likely has no idea that police headquarters has the ability to watch him jaywalk. And with the department looking to expand the camera network soon, few seem to know the cameras were here in the first place.
Installed with a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Mayor Joe Curtatone’s approval in 2008, no announcement ever came from the city about where the cameras were, or why they were here. Around that time, a city spokesman told the Somerville Journal only that cameras where placed where there was “a history of vandalism and graffiti and other crimes.”
The cameras, equipped with five viewing angles and capable of panning, tilting and zooming are constantly recording, but their data is wiped clean every 14 days unless it’s needed for a case. A dozen people have the password needed to use the zoom function – and those without the password can easily override it if they catch an incident as it’s happening. Upton stressed that no inappropriate usage of the zooming has ever been found during the department’s monthly usage audits.
After stories appeared in local newspapers about the $4.6 million grant for the cameras — shared among nine cities and towns in the area — including Brookline, Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Quincy, Revere and Winthrop — Somerville’s Board of Aldermen expressed anger at not being consulted. Cambridge and Brookline responded by temporarily switching them off or establishing a trial period. The closest Somerville came to a reaction was a Board of Aldermen hearing in March 2009, about six months after the cameras had begun operating.
At the meeting, a dozen residents and State Rep. Denise Provost decried the city’s secrecy as a civil liberties issue. Some noted that since other cities’ police their installation showed “disrespect” for the public. “It’s going to be a got harder to put the genie back in the bottle now that the cameras have been installed,” he said.
One other thing came out of that meeting: In a transparency move, the city announced that anyone could make arrangements to enter police headquarters, see what the cameras are recording, and get DVDs for a fee. While that policy answers questions about what the cameras are seeing, it also begs a crucial, and potentially frightening, question: Who, exactly, is watching what’s happening on Somerville’s streets?
More than two years later, the police department’s explanation of why the cameras are necessary focuses more on traffic than on crime. In fact, Upton downplayed the earlier assertion that the placements were strategically chosen for monitoring crime; instead, he says, the locations are based on vehicle traffic and evacuation routes. “It’s one more tool in the toolbox,” he says. “Our focus is on keeping the city from getting in gridlock, and if it does, we are going to be able to get emergency personnel to where they need to be.”
A lot depends, too, on where the cameras are located. Pointing to the cameras on top of La Quinta Hotel (23 Cummings St), the site of several drug and prostitution busts and a murder in 2009, Upton noted that the cameras were used for their views of both I-93 and Liquid Natural Gas tankers that dock in Everett, which he said are watched as possible terrorism targets.
Upton doesn’t deny, however, that the cameras are also a crimefighting tool. Cameras in Davis and Union Square have helped to both solve crimes and monitor them — or parts of them. Upton noted that after a robbery in Davis last July the cameras missed the actual incident, “but we got the bad guys running. It corroborated a part of the victim’s story.” Another instance was a report of a man with a gun in the Dunkin’ Donuts across from the SCATV building (90 Union Sq), where a camera is perched. Police were able to zoom in and monitor the situation before units arrived.
While the cameras are readily visible to anyone looking for them, some are more obvious than others, to the point of possibly deterring crime. Upton said crime data shows the camera near the bike path in Davis has had that effect. “We’ve had very little crime down there,” he said. “Bad guys aren’t stupid.”
Other anecdotes Upton shared, however, seem telling in their ambiguity. While not able to give details, he said footage was being used in a grand jury case to prove a witness had lied. He also said the westward facing camera on top of 25 Highland Ave has proven useful for watching high school students. “We’ll get word there’s going to be a problem after school, and we’ll be there (monitoring the cameras),” he said. “It’s another set of eyes. We can see a problem before it gets out of hand.”
A public conversation
Standing outside of Somerville High School (SHS, 81 Highland Ave) during a recent craft sale, 2011 graduate and current Bucknell University freshman Siobhan Murray says that while cameras inside the school were a fact of life, she never knew about the police camera nearby. “I know there are cameras in the high school, and we were OK with that,” she said. “I don’t really care personally, but if [the police cameras] were in my neighborhood, I probably would. I’d keep that in mind when I go out.”
At least one group tuned in with police issues in Somerville was also surprised. Patricia Montes, executive director of immigrant rights group Centro Presente (17 Innerbelt Rd), had never heard of the camera network. “It makes me worry,” she says. “I really would like to have a public conversation with the police to talk a little bit more about this – about why they’ve been using these cameras and why they want more.”
Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz, who initiated the Board of Aldermen’s public hearing on the cameras, wants aldermen involved in the process before more cameras are installed. Her concern about civil liberties violations has been “tempered,” she says. Gewirtz has not yet seen data showing the decrease in crime around Davis Square, her ward, but said, “If that’s the case, that could be a compelling argument.”
Montes would like for the police and city government to allow the public to have input on the network, adding, “This is information that should have been made public in order to have a more democratic government, that includes us in the decision-making processes of this city.”
In the meantime, the monitor station at police headquarters remains open to the public. So far, the few people passing through had only been looking for footage of traffic accidents they’ve been involved in – without any luck.