Many BART Trains Are Equipped with Cameras from the 1970s

In addition to outdated cameras, a 2016 investigation found that more than two-thirds of the cameras were fake.

by Sarah Ravani and Michael Cabanatuan, San Francisco Chronicle / July 19, 2017
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(TNS) -- All of BART’s rail cars may be outfitted with working cameras, but more than 100 of them feature technology that was current in the 1970s — including some still using the Betamax format, The Chronicle has learned.

BART officials say that all of the cameras work, produce usable video and are regularly inspected and replaced when needed. But the officials can’t project when — if ever — they’ll all be replaced.

A video security expert said the older cameras, which record using the VHS and Beta formats, are not only outdated but also produce poor-quality video. The tapes, cameras and viewers all degrade as they’re used.

“Tapes just get worse with age,” said Doug Carner, a digital forensic analyst. “It’s just a terrible medium.”

News of the old cameras came Tuesday as BART officials, facing mounting criticism, moved to become more forthcoming about crime, reinstating a daily public police log and deciding to create a policy on when they will release video captured by BART cameras.

BART began the $1.42 million effort to replace fake cameras inside its rail cars after an investigation by The Chronicle after a January 2016 fatal shooting near the West Oakland Station revealed that more than two-thirds of the cameras were decoys. What appeared to be video units were just empty camera housings with blinking lights intended to deter criminals.

BART vowed to have four working cameras in each of its 669 rail cars by July 1 and beat that deadline by three days. Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for the agency, said 555 of the cars have new digital cameras and recording units. But 114 are still outfitted with older devices, which include 17 VHS and 97 Beta cameras.

Trost said the older cameras are replaced when they’re no longer producing useful images. Each camera is inspected when a car is brought in for routine maintenance, and is replaced if it’s not working. Units are also replaced when police attempt to view a tape and find it unusable, she said.

Carner said replacing the older cameras would yield better images and spare BART the cost of maintaining outdated equipment.

“It’s a terrible mistake to stay with VHS” and Beta, he said.

Early Tuesday, BART police resumed emailing a daily public police log to subscribers. It had been replaced about a month ago with an online crime mapping system that offered virtually no details on incidents. The reinstatement of the public log followed weeks of criticism from the media and members of the BART Board of Directors.

A couple of hours after the crime log’s return, three directors on the board’s Operations, Safety and Worforce Committee agreed that BART should create a policy governing when video captured by the system’s extensive network of cameras should be made available to the public.

BART police already have a policy, said Director Joel Keller, but the agency as a whole needs one as well.

The issue of releasing video garnered attention — and criticism — when the transit agency refused to make public footage of an April 22 incident at Coliseum Station in which 40 to 60 youths swarmed a train and assaulted and robbed passengers.

Keller said the board needs to establish a consistent standard for when it will and won’t make video from cameras in BART’s trains, stations, parking lots and other facilities public. The committee will start discussing the policy next month and will eventually present it to the Board of Directors for approval.

“These decisions shouldn’t be made on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “They should be set on a standard criteria.”

BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas has said that the department does not release video that has the potential to interfere with the investigation or prosecution of cases. Police release video when they believe the public can assist in identifying suspects, he said, but not for entertainment.

Director Debora Allen has criticized that decision, saying the public could learn how to avoid being victimized by watching the videos of crimes.

Rusty Stapp, one of the victims of the April 22 attack at the Coliseum Station, has seen the video of the mob robbery, and agrees. Stapp, 52, of Dublin, who is suing BART over the incident, attended Tuesday’s committee meeting.

“I don’t think making the public better aware is a bad thing,” he said. “It is saddening right now not to see more proactive work by BART to protect its ridership, which is going down.”

The meeting came a day after BART released data showing an increase in sex crimes on its property over the first six months of the year.

In the report to the FBI, BART police reported that seven rapes occurred on the system’s property through the end of June, compared with four over the same period in 2016, three in 2015 and two in 2014.

The number of sexual assaults also rose, with 28 reported through June 30 compared with 28 in all of 2016 and 16 in the entirety of 2015, according to BART.

Figures requested by The Chronicle after the Coliseum mob robbery showed a 45 percent increase in robberies aboard BART trains and in its stations during the first quarter of the year.

Following the robbery, Rojas, who was sworn in as BART’s police chief in late May, had been under scrutiny for deciding to eliminate the daily police crime log, which provided a brief narrative of crime incidents, including whether arrests were made.

Last month, BART replaced the crime log with a website called CrimeMapping.com, which offered scant information on crimes that occurred throughout the system. But on Tuesday, Bevan Dufty, a BART board director, said the daily crime log was back “effective immediately.”

“I have been in constant communication with the general manager advocating for restoration (of the crime logs) and feeling as though BART is taking a hit from not being transparent,” Dufty said. “We need to be open. Our focus needs to be on recruiting more officers and not curtailing information.”

A number of other directors said they lobbied for a return of the log, and Rojas said the decision was made in response to criticism from board members and the public.

“I listened to the feedback and people were interested in getting that narrative. Is it the most efficient use of our lieutenants? No, but people want it,” Rojas said outside the BART boardroom in Oakland.

He said he is working with Crime Mapping officials to add more information to the site.

The online Crime Mapping site, which BART says it will continue to use, has meager information that includes the type of crime, date, time and location.

On Monday night, a man was robbed of his laptop and cell phone after being beaten by four males on a train at the Bay Fair Station in San Leandro, BART police wrote in the first crime log email sent in more than a month.

The thieves, who were not further described, punched and kicked the victim before robbing him, police said. They ran out of the station and were not arrested. The victim, who was not identified, was taken to a hospital and treated for facial cuts and swelling, officials said.

On July 5, BART spokesman Taylor Huckaby said that the move to the Crime Mapping website ensured “absolute” transparency. But many criticized the agency for the lack of information available on the site.

Despite widespread concern about crime on the transit system, Rojas said that overall crime on BART “is very low.”

“If we were compared with cities with populations equal to the number of people who ride BART,” Rojas said, “we would do very well.”

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