Cleveland RTA to add cameras to transit trains

When a bus passenger asked a loud and obnoxious teenager to calm down, the teen threatened to return with a .38 special. The next day, the teen found herself staring down the barrel of a disorderly-conduct charge.

"We went back to the bus at the same time the next day, and there she was," said John Joyce, chief of the Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's police force.

Cameras onboard the bus captured the encounter and helped lead to a quick identification and arrest.

Eventually, RTA plans to install surveillance cameras on its entire fleet of about 700 vehicles. Rapid trains are next, with most of them to be equipped by the end of the year.

The cameras work as safety and crime-fighting tools and have led to arrests for everything from felonious assault to arson, Joyce said. And there's no telling how many crimes they may have prevented.

"When people know there's a camera, they're more likely to be on better behavior," Joyce said.

RTA began using surveillance cameras about four years ago. At first, the cameras were confined to platforms and RTA buildings. Then, in 2006, RTA added cameras onboard some buses.

Cameras now capture video and audio on 45 regular buses, 20 paratransit buses for the disabled, all 11 of the green, trolleylike buses downtown, and a half-dozen commuter motor coaches.

"When the bus is rolling, they're rolling," Joyce said.

All new-vehicle purchases, including 21 Euclid Corridor buses on order, will include camera surveillance. Joyce expects to reach systemwide surveillance in about eight years.

Officers monitor fixed cameras live. When there's an incident on a bus, footage is downloaded and viewed later.

In some recent cases:

Footage from a downtown trolley helped identify and convict a man who slashed another passenger's throat.

A video helped police identify and convict a man for grabbing a female bus driver in the crotch.

Footage helped police find a couple of men who lit a West Side station's trash can on fire. They were charged with arson.

Cameras, however, don't guarantee quick arrests. For example, RTA has yet to identify suspects shown stealing a van from an RTA parking lot and snatching expensive sneakers from a transit station passenger.

Cleveland isn't alone. Transit agencies across the country are adding cameras to their fleets, said Greg Hull, security chief for the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association.

Public-transit agencies were using cameras back in the 1970s, mainly for evidence in personal-injury claims, he said. Use increased dramatically as technology improved and prices dropped.

The national association is now developing standards for camera placement based on lessons learned, Hull said.

The availability of federal money has also contributed to the spread of cameras. Homeland security grants for public transportation increased significantly following high-profile disasters, including the 1995 chemical attack in Tokyo's subway and transit bombings in London and Madrid.

Locally, reactions to RTA's camera plans were mixed.

Gordon Friedman, a Cleveland lawyer with a background in criminal defense and civil-rights litigation, worries that the ever-increasing number of cameras in public places is chipping away at privacy.

"I think the solution is more grave than the problem," he said. "The net is not only big, it's excessive."

Suzann Moskowitz, who rides the rapid from her home near Shaker Square to work in downtown Cleveland every day, said the idea of being in a camera's eye doesn't necessarily bother her.

"Obviously, it is hard to see a downside when you talk about additional security, but honestly, I've never felt unsafe riding the trains," she said. "Admittedly, I sit closer to the driver when I ride at night or notice any particularly nutty riders."

The security upgrade for RTA's Blue and Green lines will cost about $1.2 million, about 80 percent of which is coming from the federal government. This project includes cameras for 34 cars and a two-way communication system that will allow passengers to push a button to talk with the operator.

Equipping 40 Red line cars with cameras will cost about $892,000, all from federal grants.