San Diego transit system expands bus, trolley surveillance

Satisfied with a test of video cameras onboard trolleys and buses, the Metropolitan Transit System announced yesterday that it has received $1.2 million from the federal government to expand the surveillance program.

The goal is to have the cameras and digital recorders on all buses and trolleys within two years, said Paul Jablonski, the system's chief executive officer.

The added surveillance is not in response to an increase in serious crime on the transit system last year, he said.

Previous federal grants totaling $1.9 million are paying for cameras to be installed on 220 buses and 11 trolleys, he said.

The grant announced yesterday will pay for video-surveillance equipment on an additional 58 trolleys, or about half the fleet.

The transit system is applying for additional grants for video systems on the rest of the 253 buses and 134 trolleys it owns, spokesman Luis Gonzales said.

It is in negotiations to install surveillance on 435 buses operated under contract by a private company, Veolia Transportation.

Each bus has seven cameras and each trolley has six. The cameras use infrared light to record images in the dark.

The system isn't set up right now for real-time monitoring, so guards are not observing every move of riders and drivers.

Instead, the sights and sounds of happenings in and around the buses and trolleys are recorded on hard drives and kept for several days.

If there's a crash or if the bus driver or trolley operator pushes a button, about 10 minutes of video is marked for download later by a technician, and then reviewed.

While U.S. Department of Homeland Security grants are paying for the cameras, it's unclear how such a setup could prevent a terrorist attack such as those on transit riders in Spain and England.

The San Diego transit system is reviewing whether it will later equip the system with wireless antennas so guards following a bus or trolley could use a laptop to see what's happening inside.

There was nothing on the bus and trolley shown to reporters yesterday advising of the video surveillance, although the cameras were easy to spot inside their plastic bubbles.

When the cameras were first installed, there were gaps of 15 seconds or more in the recordings, but software updates have dealt with those problems, said Claire Spielberg, who oversees buses for the transit system.

And the system has already paid off, for example when a rider claimed the bus stopped short and caused him to fall.

On review, the cameras showed what really happened, she said. "He fell asleep and he just fell out of his chair."

The cameras and recorders are manufactured by Integrian, of North Carolina, which has similar contracts with transit systems in New York City and New Jersey.

While transit and Homeland Security officials tout the surveillance as a strike against crime, vandalism and bogus insurance claims, others aren't so sure.

"There's sadly no evidence that surveillance cameras make us safer," said Kevin Keenan, who heads the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The most effective strategies are putting more police officers out there."