Smile for the camera
The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority recently finished installing dozens of new surveillance cameras on and around the Newport Pell Bridge, according to David Darlington, chairman of the authority’s board of directors.
The cameras are the last phase of the response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said. Darlington acknowledged the information is public record but did not want to go into “too many specifics.” He indicated the authority now has “several dozen cameras” trained on the toll plaza, the bridge decks and underneath the span.
The bridge authority probably has the largest number of surveillance cameras around Jamestown. (Who has the most is impossible to say because some local officials declined to provide information.)
But going over the bridge is not the only way to come under surveillance in town. In fact, anyone who has walked around the island has probably been photographed by some local businessowner, homeowner or government agency, even though warning signs typically are not present to indicate a camera is in operation.
As long as the camera does not pick up audio, the operators are not violating any privacy laws, Police Chief Ed Mello said.
Jamestown police have used video from downtown to investigate hit-and-run accidents. They’ve also used tape to solve a variety of criminal cases, including shoplifting, larceny and credit card thefts. But that’s not to say the method always works. The video has come from town-operated cameras and cameras run by private storeowners. The quality is not always good.
“Some of it is spot on,” Mello said. “Some of the quality leaves a lot to be desired.”
Mello could not estimate how many private businesses and homeowners have installed video surveillance systems because the Police Department does not require notice about alarms or pri- vate security systems. The number is anybody’s guess, he said.
Although cameras spark controversy because people differ in their views about privacy rights and personal freedoms, Mello thinks surveillance discourages crime.
Recently, several communities have discussed installing surveillance networks, but Mello said there’s been no such discussion in Jamestown.
State agencies do have cameras mounted along the highway and around the waterfront, he said, and some of the cameras have been up and running for years.
The state Department of Transportation, for example, has maintained a traffic camera along Route 138 near the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge for eight years, according to Bryan Lucier, a spokesman with DOT.
The Department of Environmental Management has 13 cameras along Jamestown’s waterfront to monitor the bay, said DEM Deputy Chief Frank Floor. Statewide, the DEM has 35 cameras watching the Narragansett Bay. They’re focused on the water, he said, and in addition to helping Homeland Security and the port authority, cameras have been used for search-and-rescue missions, vessel fires, boat accidents, suspicious activity, fishing violations and hit-and-run boating accidents.
RITBA started installing surveillance cameras around the bridge about eight years ago. According to Darlington, the cameras do more than catch scofflaws. A high-powered camera atop the span gives the agency the ability to monitor vessels coming to and from the bridge. It can follow ships from several miles away, he said.
The feed goes into the operations center, and the bridge authority shares information with environmental police, the U.S. Coast Guard and port security.
According to Lucier, that Transportation Department camera was installed on March 31, 2005. “RIDOT only has one camera located on the island,” he said.
The system – camera, pole, wiring and electrical box – cost $29,000 for the entire setup. According to Lucier, it’s used strictly for traffic control.
“Like the other traffic cameras we have around the state, the camera in Jamestown helps us manage the flow of traffic on Rhode Island’s roadways,” he said. “The feed is monitored by our transportation management center, which is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We can alert first responders to breakdowns or accidents and quickly assist motorists. This helps cut down on congestion and reduce the chances that a secondary accident will occur.”
In the case of an accident, the Transportation Department shares information with first responders, but there’s no collaboration on police investigations.
“The video feed is not recorded, so we are physically not able to provide footage after an incident has happened,” he said.
While the DOT has had its system up for some time, there is equipment on the island that is brand new. The School Department mounted security cameras inside and outside the buildings last winter in response to the Sandy Hook shootings. According to Superintendent Marcia Lukon, the department plans to add more.
Lukon did not want to divulge any specifics about the number of cameras and where they’re located for security reasons. She also didn’t disclose the price.
“They were financed with capital improvement money saved on other projects,” she said. “Presently we are using cameras to monitor some key locations both interior and exterior.”
And more cameras are coming for outside surveillance, she indicated.
“The actual cost of those has yet to be determined,” she said. The School Department plans to finance the cost with money in the upcoming fiscal year’s capital budget.
Also, the School Department last month announced plans to install cameras to monitor activity on the school buses. Lukon said the cameras were partly for security and partly to deal with disciplinary problems. They are meant to discourage mischief, she added.
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said the town will not purchase new cameras this year. He declined to give information about the number and cost of current surveillance cameras that the municipal government operates.
At public meetings, he has mentioned a town-owned camera trained on the East Ferry woodpile pier and another camera atop the recreation center.
At a Town Council budget workshop in March, Keiser said, “We have security cameras on a number of different town facilities to protect against break-ins.”
He continued, “It’s actually helped us. We’ve been increasing the number of sites. The Police Department has utilized them. The Fire Department’s utilized them.”
Later, he said, there was no plan to add cameras this year.
He also mentioned cameras at pump stations and the restroom at the rec center as examples of cameras used to monitor facilities that stay open after regular business hours.
Keiser cited an unfavorable ruling against the American Civil Liberties Union as one reason he would not disclose the cost of the surveillance cameras.
Asked about the matter, Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU’s local chapter, said he didn’t know of any court ruling. He also said the cost of surveillance cameras purchased by a government agency is public record.