NEW YORK_Along a gritty stretch of street in Brooklyn, police this month quietly launched an ambitious plan to combat street crime and terrorism.
But instead of cops on the beat, wireless video cameras peer down from lamp posts about 30 feet above the sidewalk.
They were the first installment of a program to place 500 cameras throughout the city at a cost of $9 million. Hundreds of additional cameras could follow if the city receives $81.5 million in federal grants it has requested to safeguard Lower Manhattan and parts of midtown with a surveillance "ring of steel" modeled after security measures in London's financial district.
Officials of the New York Police Department - which considers itself at the forefront of counterterrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - claim the money would be well-spent, especially since the revelations that al-Qaida members once cased the New York Stock Exchange and other financial institutions.
"We have every reason to believe New York remains in the cross-hairs, so we have to do what it takes to protect the city," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said last week at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The city already has about 1,000 cameras in the subways, with 2,100 scheduled to be in place by 2008. An additional 3,100 cameras monitor city housing projects.
New York's approach isn't unique. Chicago spent roughly $5 million on a 2,000-camera system. Homeland Security officials in Washington plan to spend $9.8 million for surveillance cameras and sensors on a rail line near the Capitol. And Philadelphia has increasingly relied on video surveillance.
Privacy advocates say the NYPD's camera plan needs more study and safeguards to preserve privacy and guard against abuses like racial profiling and voyeurism.
The department "is installing cameras first and asking questions later," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Police officials insist that law-abiding New Yorkers have nothing to fear because the cameras will be restricted to public areas. The police commissioner recently established a panel of four corporate defense lawyers to advise the department on surveillance policies.
"The police department must be flexible to meet an ever changing threat," Kelly said. "We also have to ensure whatever measures we take are reasonable as the Constitution requires. That's the only way to retain public support and preserve individual freedoms."
Lieberman concedes cameras can help investigators identify suspects once a crime has been committed, but argues they can't prevent crime. She cited a 2002 study which concluded that surveillance cameras used in 14 British cities had little or no impact on crime rates - just as they didn't keep terrorists from bombing the London subway system last year.
"The London experience shouldn't be misconstrued that the 'ring of steel' prevents terrorism," she said. "But that's how it's being pitched."
Still, New York police were impressed that their British counterparts drew on 80,000 videotapes to identify and retrace the routes of the subway system suicide bombers and the suspects in a failed follow-up attack.
Timothy Horner, a specialist with the Kroll security firm and a former NYPD captain, said the measures make sense.
"It's not a cure-all, and the department is not thinking that way," he said. "But we really want law enforcement to use whatever tools they can to keep us safe."