Police and politicians across the U.S. are pointing to the surveillance video that was used to help identify the Boston Marathon bombing suspects as a reason to get more electronic eyes on their streets.
Efforts include trying to gain police access to cameras used to monitor traffic, expanding surveillance networks in some major cities and enabling officers to get regular access to security footage at businesses.
Some in law enforcement, however, acknowledge that their plans may face an obstacle: Americans’ traditional reluctance to give the government more law enforcement powers out of fears over privacy.
“Look, we don’t want an occupied state. We want to be able to walk the good balance between freedom and security,” said Los Angeles police Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who heads the department’s counter-terrorism and special operations bureau.
The U.S. lags behind other countries in building up surveillance. One reason is the more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, with each determining its own policy. Another reason is cost: A single high-definition camera can cost about $2,500 — not including the installation, maintenance or monitoring costs.
Whatever Americans’ attitudes or the costs, experts say, the use of cameras is likely to increase, whether they are part of an always-on, government-run network or a disparate, disorganized web of citizens’ smartphones and business security systems.
“One of the lessons coming out of Boston is it’s not just going to be cameras operated by the city, but it’s going to be cameras that are in businesses, cameras that citizens use,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “You’ll see the use of cameras will skyrocket.”
Part of the push among law enforcement agencies is for greater integration of surveillance systems. For decades, law enforcement has contacted businesses for video after a crime. An integrated network would make that easier, advocates say.
Since the Boston bombings, police officials have been making the case for such a network.
In Philadelphia, the police commissioner appealed last week to business owners with cameras in public spaces to register them with the department. In Chicago, the mayor wants to expand the city’s already robust network of roughly 22,000 surveillance video.
And in Houston, officials want to add to their 450 cameras through more public and private partnerships. “If they have a camera that films an area we’re interested in, then why put up a separate camera?” said Dennis Storemski, director of the mayor’s office of public safety and homeland security.
Amie Stepanovich, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Domestic Surveillance Project, finds concerning the potential for an integrated network of cameras that could allow authorities to track people’s movements.
Such a network could be upgraded later with more “invasive” features like facial recognition, Stepanovich said, noting that the Boston surveillance footage was from a private security system at a department store that was not linked to law enforcement.