NEW YORK — A proposed plan to put surveillance cameras on subway trains here has been met with cheers and a degree of skepticism, as authorities weigh the benefits of real-time monitoring capabilities.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the nation's largest transit system, is studying the possibility of installing the cameras in future subway car models. New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who backs the plan, has said he hopes officers would be able to watch the trains through live feeds on tablets.
"They (cameras) could potentially improve safety and security for our customers, but creating real-time monitoring capabilities would be a difficult technical challenge," said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the MTA. "The MTA always works closely with our NYPD partners to keep the subways safe, and we will continue collaborating on improved surveillance capabilities as well."
It's not clear how the city would pay for the cameras, how much the installation might cost or when MTA will make its final decision, Ortiz said.
Despite that other cities have used the cameras without incident, the New York Civil Liberties Union and some commuters worry that the cameras could be abused and lead to invasions of privacy.
Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said surveillance cameras in subways won't stop crime, despite what other jurisdictions say. He's also concerned that the millions of innocent people who rely on the subway system could end up in a large government database or police file.
"The police have to draw a line between criminal suspects and everybody else, and public surveillance systems largely obliterate that line," Dunn said.
New York City's subway system has 468 stations and 6,000 subway cars. In 2013, it provided 5.5 million rides on an average weekday.
Cameras on this vast system would be a great crime-fighting tool, Bratton told the New York Daily News.
"One of my officers could actually be standing on a platform waiting for that train to come in ... monitoring the cameras on that subway car to see if there's an issue on that 10-car train that he wants to go and focus on," Bratton told the Daily News.
Conductors could also monitor display terminals in their cabins between stations to detect disturbances in real time and enable prompt assessments of reports from riders via subway intercoms, Bratton told the paper.
The NYPD did not reply to USA TODAY's multiple requests for comment.
Meanwhile, surveillance cameras have been added to subways and commuter trains serving areas around Los Angeles; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Orlando; and in several cities in Pennsylvania. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has also ordered new cars with surveillance cameras installed that will begin to operate in 2018.
Officials in each city told USA TODAY the cameras deter crime and have helped police protect against terrorism attacks, catch thieves and identify repeat offenders. In most cases, police officers don't have the ability to watch live footage from each car but many city authorities can tune into trains or download the footage later.
If the plan in New York does go forward, the NYCLU's Dunn insists that the footage taken by subway cameras should be destroyed soon after it is recorded — unless a crime has occurred.
"If you are in a police file, you are likely to, at some point, become the target of a police investigation," he said. "We think that's inappropriate unless you are actually suspected of some sort of wrongdoing."
Dan Stessel, a spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, says riders on Washington, D.C.-area trains have come to accept the cameras, which were installed in 2009. By 2020, more than half of the system's 1,200 cars will have them.
"You are in a public place, so there's no expectation of privacy," Stessel said. "We want to put criminals on notice that if you are anywhere in the Metro system, chances are you are on camera, so you would have to be pretty foolish to commit a crime on the transit system."
A new generation of rail cars in Chicago arrived in 2012, and with them came the system's first onboard surveillance cameras, said Tammy Chase, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Transit Authority.
The results: Chicago transit police made 60 graffiti and vandalism arrests during the first three months of this year. That's the same number of arrests made during all of 2013.
By the end of 2014, officials hope the entire fleet — including older cars — will have surveillance cameras, Chase said. She added that the footage is kept for a period of time but wouldn't say how long.
"Like New York, Chicago is a big city, and we want our customers to feel safe," she said. "We believe cameras are an important part of that."
The Department of Homeland Security has given cities millions of dollars to install surveillance cameras in subways and commuter trains. The cameras can be funded through agency grants such as the Transit Security Grant Program, said Nicole Stickel, a DHS spokeswoman in an e-mail.
Stickel wouldn't comment specifically about the cameras but said in an e-mailed statement that the Transit Security Grant Program provides funding to "protect critical surface transportation infrastructure and the traveling public from acts of terrorism and to increase the resilience of transit infrastructure."
While some New Yorkers welcome the idea of being watched during their commute, Kenneth Ramirez says he fears the NYPD might racially profile some riders or go after panhandlers.
"People dance and people try to get money on the train," Ramirez said. "It's going to affect certain people, to target them and make sure they can't do that and make the little money that they can."