JFK / UMass Station

Do MBTA’s Added Cameras Really Help Reduce Crime?

In an effort claimed to fight crimes such as robberies and sexual assaults, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority plans to install up to 200 additional buses with cameras. Plans for installation are already ahead of schedule, with 50 new security cameras having just been completed at the JFK/UMass Red Line Station.

Currently, of the nearly 1,000 buses operated by the MBTA, 370 have security cameras. The MBTA is responsible for operating the entire assortment of the buses and trains in the metropolitan Boston area.

The Red Line installations suggest that every electrical outlet suited nook and cranny of public buses should be equipped with top of the line surveillance equipment. Cameras were added inside the buses, the station, and even the surrounding parking lots. While real-time footage of illicit behavior is the explicit purpose, the footage will be stored up to a month, readily accessible to law enforcement looking to buttress any “leads”.

JFK / UMass stationThe UMass stop is said to be rife with activity and inviting to criminal conduct, due to its proximity to UMass Boston and Boston College High School. Yet, the intended desire to protect students from criminal behavior does not jive with the details surrounding the implementation of the program. For one, the cameras were funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which does not list, among its primary goals, the protection of college kids from pick-pocketers. The lack of palpable evidence suggesting a surge in crime around bus stops must also be noted. Increasingly, the efforts to protect students seem to be just momentary justifications for a camera-expansion program that is near-certain to blossom at stations miles away from student activity.

Moreover, ridership on Boston public transit, including buses, is at an all time high. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the eyes of your fellow citizens – standing a foot apart from you in every which direction – would be more adept at thwarting crime than the eyes of machines being monitored miles away? It is this last point that raises the larger question of using cameras to dissuade crime.

The bottom line is, are they even effective?

Recent studies would suggest to the contrary. A 2008 study by the Center of Information Technology Research In the Interest of Society found that the implementation of safety cameras in public areas throughout San Francisco resulted in more cases of administrative difficulties and public fears of civil liberty infractions than in crime prevention. Perhaps most disheartening, the study found that a lack of clear objectives made it nearly impossible to come up with the type of metrics that could really help determine if such cameras can reduce violent crimes. Good luck pinning down any “clear objectives” for the MBTA’s increased cameras.

 Finally, the new cameras raise questions as to the benefits imbued from recent fare increases and the public safety apparatus currently in place to prevent users of MBTA services from being robbed or assaulted. If there is a clear crisis in public safety for MBTA users (for which, as mentioned, the evidence is bare), should we not look first to the efficacy of the system in place, before spending money and energy on a controversial, potentially intrusive tactic that has not proven to reduce crime in the first place?