Columbia U. Uses Cameras to Control Safety

Sept. 13, 2006
Columbia's DPS employs a wide video surveillance network throughout the residential dorms and campus

To Columbia University students strolling around a verdant campus, Columbia seems to be in its own world, a haven isolated from the metropolis it calls home. The imposing iron gates, the obligatory ID swipes, even the literary deities gazing down from Butler give students a palpable sense of security.

But Dante and Homer won't reassure prospective students' parents of their children's safety.

To ensure that students remain safe, Columbia's Department of Public Safety employs a wide video surveillance network throughout the residential dorms and other buildings on campus. Yet despite privacy concerns and disputes over how capable they are, the department remains convinced of the cameras' utility.

"We are sure that they're effective," said Kenneth Finnegan, director of investigations and technology at Columbia's Department of Public Safety. "We've made two arrests of burglars, and the use of video was a main factor in being able to arrest them."

Maggie Gram, New York Civil Liberties Union communication director, was more skeptical.

"Video surveillance has not been proven to be effective and is subject to abuse," she said. "Columbia students should be asking what their purpose on campus is. ... What makes Columbia so sure that surveillance is the best way to keep Columbia safe?"

Finnegan said that he doesn't see the cameras as an infringement on students' rights. "We don't have them in any place where there is an expectation of privacy; they are in public spaces at perimeter of the university," he said.

According to Finnegan, there are several hundred cameras around campus and, while he said some are placed fairly obviously, he refused to divulge most of their locations. Only senior Public Safety members have access to the tapes, though a victim may be asked to identify potential aggressors.

According to University crime statistics for the years 2002 to 2004, there has been a consistent decrease in the number of incidents of robbery, burglary, and sexual assault on campus, perhaps supporting Columbia's claim that the campus is safer with surveillance cameras than without. These statistics also show an increase in arrests and disciplinary action for drug- and alcohol-related offenses.

Questions surrounding surveillance "are a moot point because it's going to happen," Marco Zappocosta, president of Columbia College Libertarians, said. "But now it is just a question of who controls the information."

Citing the bias incident last December in which two Columbia students wrote anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist epithets in Ruggles, Zappocosta added, "After the hate crimes, it is now easier than ever to watch [what students do]. The debate is not whether or not we should have it, but how transparent we can make it."