Bay Area Rapid Transit Dummy Cameras Come Under Fire

Decoy surveillance cameras are common as a way to deter minor crimes while being cost efficient, but BART’s on-train security may get an upgrade before the agency begins transitioning to a new fleet of cars in 2017.

by Evan Sernoffsky and Michael Cabanatuan, San Francisco Chronicle / January 15, 2016
The inside of a BART Train Flickr/Rafael Castillo

(TNS) -- BART’s longtime practice of relying primarily on decoy surveillance cameras inside trains appears to be unusual among major city transit agencies and prompted criticism Thursday from a Bay Area congressman who has long fought to steer federal funding to the agency to beef up security.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, said he was “surprised” to learn that the vast majority of ceiling-mounted surveillance units in BART rail cars are dummies with no cameras inside.

The Chronicle revealed the decoy program after BART failed to capture video footage of a killing last weekend on a train, even though the attacker opened fire just feet from what appeared to be cameras.

“I look at those cameras myself. I had assumed that every time I got on BART those cameras were rolling and someone was watching,” said Swalwell, who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

“I think with the technology we have today — and knowing transportation systems are not just targets for criminals but for terrorism — we would be well served to improve security on trains and what we are able to see,” Swalwell said.

BART’s on-train security may get an upgrade before the agency begins transitioning to a new fleet of cars in 2017. Spokeswoman Alicia Trost said Thursday that BART will in the coming year outfit “a select number of train cars” with cameras that can be monitored remotely in real time.

No video of shooting

On Saturday night, the gunman fired multiple shots at his victim from close range on a crowded BART car as it pulled into the West Oakland Station. The suspect was recorded entering the Pittsburg/Bay Point Station and fleeing the West Oakland Station — images that BART police circulated in hopes of tracking the man down.

But investigators lost a chance to view the killing and what may have immediately precipitated it. As of Thursday, the victim had not been identified and the killer remained on the loose. A motive is unknown.

Swalwell, a former member of the Homeland Security Committee who represents much of eastern Alameda County, has been instrumental in winning funding for BART security projects. In June, he and five other Bay Area members of Congress signed a letter urging the Department of Homeland Security to fund patrol teams and security cameras at the West Oakland Station.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, BART has received $200 million in federal and state security funds, with most of the money designated for specific projects, officials said.

Swalwell said he would have helped petition for more federal cash for the train cameras — if he knew most were fakes.

He said he also wasn’t aware that none of the onboard devices — there are four in each car — can be monitored remotely in real time, which would allow BART to better respond to unfolding emergencies.

“Whether it’s protecting passengers from a violent crime or a terrorist incident, making sure you have cameras that work and are seen by a live person is important,” Swalwell said.

BART’s police chief, Kenton Rainey, said Thursday that the pictures the agency released of the suspect — taken by more modern station cameras — prove the security system functioned as intended. He acknowledged some of the cameras were decoys, but said, “I’m not going to say how many.”

Chronicle reporters walked the length of several BART trains and found that roughly three-fourths of the cameras appeared to be dummies. But even some of the actual cameras in many BART trains don’t work, according to two police sources familiar with the matter.

“We have a layered security system, and it worked,” Rainey said. “We captured images of the suspect. We know where he entered and exited the system, and we got a very clear image.”

Meant to stop minor crimes

Decoy surveillance cameras are common in private security across the country, used by construction firms and businesses and advertised online in a variety of models. A former BART police sergeant who consults with agencies on police tactics and security said they can serve a purpose.

“I think the benefit is that is if somebody’s going to do a minor crime, it’s going to deter them from doing that,” said the consultant, Don Cameron of Martinez. “But if a guy is going to shoot someone, it doesn’t matter.”

BART officials said every car in the new fleet will be equipped with cutting-edge cameras producing footage that can be watched live from a central monitoring station. Those cars are expected to arrive between 2017 and 2021.

A lot has changed in the way cameras are designed and used since BART began installing them inside trains in 1998, an effort aimed chiefly at stopping vandals and other low-level criminals. Eighty were initially installed in a pilot program. and more were added in 2000.

According to BART Director Tom Radulovich, board members were told at the time that many of the cameras were not real.

Rainey said Wednesday that he did not “know any other jurisdiction that has a robust system like this.” However, BART seems to stand out from other major metropolitan transit agencies in deploying decoy cameras.

The Chicago Transit Authority recently used federal grant money to outfit all of its trains and buses with security cameras — none of which are decoys, officials said.

“Our more than 23,000 cameras are across all of our rail cars, buses and stations, all of which are equipped and fully functional,” said an agency spokesman, Jeff Tolman.

New York steps up effort

Officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which manages New York City subways, trains and buses, have said they are installing hundreds of cameras aboard new buses and trains. A spokesman for New York’s transportation workers union said there are no dummy cameras on trains or buses.

The same goes for San Francisco’s transit system. Paul Rose, a spokesman for Muni, said all of the agency’s vehicles — buses, rail and cable cars — are outfitted with cameras.

“We don’t have any decoy cameras,” he said. “They’re all active.”

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.