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Security cameras come to trolleys

Green Line starts safety initiative

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / October 17, 2009

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First they were on the buses. Now cameras will help keep an eye out for crime on the Green Line as part of an MBTA safety initiative that one civil liberties group says raises concerns.

The MBTA will begin testing cameras on the trolleys underground as part of a pilot program that is funded with $500,000 in grant money from the Department of Homeland Security, Chief Paul MacMillan of the MBTA Transit Police said yesterday.

The two-phase project is meant to increase security on the transit system by beaming images in real time from inside trolleys to the Transit Police’s operations control center in downtown Boston.

“Our hope is that the cameras will be able to be viewed in a police cruiser, so that an officer responding to a call will have real-time viewing of what is happening on the scene,’’ MacMillan said.

Cameras are installed on more than 300 buses, and most of the T’s subway stations. Now they are going into the tunnels, he said.

Transit police have used video from surveillance cameras in nearly 500 investigations, more than 240 of which have resulted in charges, according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

Surveillance footage from a bus also led to the arrest of five individuals this week, each charged with assault by means of a dangerous weapon. Four were taped Sept. 9 brandishing knives on a bus in Boston, Pesaturo added.

“Since we’ve installed the closed-circuit television system, we’ve had great success using it to solve crimes and identify offenders,’’ MacMillan said. “We think this enhances awareness on what is happening on our transit system and on the train.’’

Nancy Murray, the education director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said her organization has concerns about the use of federal money to support cameras to keep watch over riders.

“Our feeling about these cameras is that it’s not clear at all about where the data would be stored or what it would be used for,’’ she said.

Murray, citing surveillance cameras across the Boston area, said the T cameras will be high-resolution devices that one day could be used to track people or be fitted with facial recognition software.

“Our question is what images do they pick up?’’ she asked. “If you are sitting down and reading a book, can they see the book title?’’

MacMillan said that he understands the concerns about privacy, but that safety has a bigger role.

“I believe our ability to use these cameras as investigative tools outweighs the privacy concerns,’’ said MacMillan, who pointed out that the devices are standard closed-circuit television cameras.

He said the trolley videos will be kept for a short time. Video from buses is stored for 72 hours, and that from stations is stored about a month, MacMillan said.

The T knows the technology works in the buses, and the new experiment will test it in the tunnels, MacMillan said.

The trolley cameras will be rolled out in two phases, the first of which begins this year. The first phase will involve two trolleys, each outfitted with four cameras apiece. The second phase will involve three other trolleys.

Riders braving the afternoon commute at Park Street yesterday welcomed the news about the cameras.

“It doesn’t bother me,’’ said Richard Rosenblatt, a 68-year-old from Newton. “I’m not doing anything wrong, so I don’t care.’’

Artem Shakhramanyan, a 21-year-old student from Brighton, said the cameras will be an extra layer of protection for riders.

“If people know there is a camera on the train, it will prevent them from doing something wrong,’’ he said.

Marville Peart, a 53-year-old social worker from Brockton, shrugged off concerns about an infringement on riders’ privacy.

“It’s like a double-edge sword,’’ she said. “There are times when things happen on the train and [you want help but] there is no one there. And there are times when we need our privacy. At the same time, safety is the utmost concern.’’