Surveillance cameras operated by
the New York City Housing Authority
in the Lower East Side of Manhattan

New York City's federally subsidized housing developments are the biggest and best funded in the USA. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is given an annual budget of $430 million to run 160,000 housing units, in which there are approximately 600,000 people. According to NYCHA's statistics, 94 percent of these people are either black or Latino, and the average annual income is below $15,000.

The simple but brutal fact of the matter is that if NYCHA forces these people to be surveilled by video cameras, there is nothing they can do. They can't afford to hire attorneys, and they can't afford to move elsewhere (not when an average NYC apartment costs $12,000 a year to rent!). But these people weren't targeted for maximum surveillance because they are criminals or even the frequent victims of criminals. They were targeted because 1) statistics (success rates, projections and the like) play such an important role in getting, maintaining and increasing federal funding for local authorities like the NYCHA; and 2) statistics are easily misinterpreted, manipulated or even manufactured outright, especially when it comes to statistics derived from the video surveillance of people who both know about the cameras and can't escape from them. (In "the real world," potential criminals generally don't know about the cameras that are watching them, and -- if and when they find out -- can easily move out of their sight.)

In July 1997, a video surveillance system utilizing 105 cameras was turned on at Manhattan's Ulysses S. Grant housing development, in part because it is near the station-house of the 26th Precinct, which is where the police established their VIPER ("Video Interactive Patrol Enhanced Response") unit. Shortly thereafter, a system utilizing 100 cameras was installed at Brooklyn's Albany Houses, with the VIPER unit set up at a near-by station house; and a system using 260 cameras was installed at the South Jamaica Houses in Queens. Because this sprawling housing complex was too far away from the nearest police station to lay down the necessary cables, a unique VIPER unit was constructed on-site.

These CCTV (closed-circuit television) systems were designed and installed by Sparta Solutions. In each one, the cables connecting the cameras to the monitors are fiber-optic, which means they provide rapid noiseless transmission; and the monitors display their images "in real time," that is, without skipping any of the 30 frames that go by each second. Everything is recorded. To conserve space, all of the recordings are "time-elapsed," that is, only a frame or two per second has been captured, and each videotape records the feeds from 10 different cameras. If they haven't recorded anything significant, these tapes are re-used after 7 days. Each tape is used a total of 10 times before it is destroyed and replaced with a brand-new one.

According to the NYPD, after the installation of its CCTV systems, the crime rate was reduced at these housing devoplements. But it was possible that these reductions didn't derive from the CCTV systems' effectiveness, but instead from the simple fact that the existence of these systems had been widely publicized before, during and after their installation. And so the NYPD needed the statistics from a NYCHA unit in which the existence of video surveillance wasn't commonly known. In 1998 or 1999, a "secret" system was installed at the Lillian Wald Housing Development, which is located along Avenue D between Houston and 6th Streets. There are at least 26 cameras installed outside the buildings; inside, there are probably another 70 or so cameras watching hallways, laundry rooms, elevators, etc etc. Given the distance to the nearest police stations, it's a good guess that the VIPER unit is located somewhere on the premises.

It isn't clear if the images being recorded by this or any other VIPER Unit in New York are being monitored live by police officers as well as recorded by the digital machines. Note the following, which was taken from Sparta Solution's website: it's the only time that the company's involvement with "New York" (the NYPD) is mentioned.

Over the past several years, SPARTA designed CCTV systems have been effective at reducing crime as much as 70 percent in several high-profile areas (New York City, Atlanta) in cases where the systems have been monitored. The effectiveness of these systems and other CCTV systems have decayed, however, as the clients have reduced or eliminated active monitoring of these sites.

This clearly suggests that the NYPD had been monitoring as well as recording back in 1997, but since then have stopped monitoring (hiring video-monitors is very expensive) and started relying exclusively on recording and looking at the images only when a crime has occurred and been reported (by the victim, perhaps, or by a squad car or foot patrol). This is very disconcerting: the surveillance cameras are no longer used to identify and call attention to criminal activity, which must take place before the cameras can be of any use. There is now no way that a crime might be averted or stopped as it was taking place -- but this was precisely what the NYCHA promised its tenants when the cameras were first installed!

The system at Lillian Wald was (still) an official secret when we made our March 2001 map, because there (still) weren't any signs that alerted both occupants and visitors to the fact that the police were using video cameras to watch the place. It was only later (the summer or fall of 2001) that the NYPD filled the place with those weird signs, the ones that say that the NYPD is using video cameras to "randomly" watch "selected areas." Instead of reassuring the innocent that they are safe and warning the guilty that their crimes will be recorded, this weird wording has the effect of confusing everybody. Are the police watching or not? Watching this spot, or over there? Watching all the time, or only sometimes? etc etc. These questions lead to other, larger questions. Why bother to post such signs in the first place, unless one's intention was in fact to cause confusion? And, if confusion was in fact the desired effect, why not stick with the signs? Why install any cameras at all? It is unlikely that the NYPD was intentionally trying to re-create the radically uncertain environment that, in Discipline and Punish (1975), Michel Foucault claimed was the essential feature of Jeremy Bentham's "Pantopticon," an 18th century design for the construction of "enlightened" prisons. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the NYPD's weird signs have accomplished; they've turned the Lillian Wald Housing Development into a grim open-air prison for people whose only crime is the fact that they don't have enough money to move out.

Lillian Wald herself would be appalled by these developments. The founder of the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service and the Henry Street Settlement, she was one of 62 prominent people whose name appeared on a list of subversives drawn up by Woodrow Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, who organized the infamous "Palmer raids" on Americans who he thought held "dangerous, destructive and anarchistic sentiments." Like the other people on the list, Lillian Wald had been under government surveillance for years. And so, the installation of police surveillance cameras (and weird signs) at the place named after her subverts and destroys the primary reason for naming something after her in the first place: that is, clearing her good name from false charges that she was an anti-American subversive.

-- the New York Surveillance Camera Players, 6 June 2005.

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