Surveillance cameras remain despite council order

Surveillance cameras installed as part of a Department of Homeland Security effort continue to bother some in Cambridge and Boston. (Photo: Jonathan Hinkle)

More than two months after city councillors lashed into the city manager for ignoring their order to take down surveillance cameras, the scene replayed Monday as the city manager admitted the cameras still stood.

There were nine cameras installed years ago as part of a regional grant effort by the Department of Homeland Security, City Manager Robert W. Healy said as part of the regular council meeting, and eight remain. None are turned on, meaning they are not watching or recording — and not drawing federal grant money.

“They have not been dismantled. I still hope we could have a discussion about the cameras,” Healy said.

Councillor Marjorie Decker responded strongly, asking “What would the fuller discussion be about? There are questions to be answered, but we probably have different questions.”

Not only should the cameras not be operational, she said, but they shouldn’t be up — since they were described at first as being about the safety of evacuation routes in the case of an areawide emergency, but public safety officials conceded long ago the devices actually had no role in ensuring evacuation route safety. As the Cambridge Chronicle reported last year,

At a community meeting at City Hall, Cambridge Fire Chief Gerald Reardon argued the cameras, which are expected to be turned on within a month, are meant as a tool for 911 dispatchers to view evacuation routes in emergencies rather than as surveillance equipment, pointing to the grainy video footage when the camera’s zoomed pictures.

“I don’t think you can see any people on the street in great details,” said Reardon. “If we were being graded on surveillance [with these cameras], we would get an ‘F.’”

The cameras were up for six years before the council knew anything about them, Decker said, and the council only learned of them through a constituent’s e-mail.

Therefore, questions from the council might be “Why wasn’t the council informed? Why are they still up when the council voted them down?” Decker said.

At the Feb. 22 council meeting, Healy told councillors he had been holding off on taking down the cameras until their public safety subcommittee had a chance to meet, and at the time there was no mayor and therefore no subcommittees at work. But Decker responded then that he had no need to consult with the committee.

“To reiterate, the council voted to take them down. You have had ample time,” she said at the time.

The vote to remove the cameras came in February 2009, with Decker saying “the potential threats to invasion of privacy and individual civil liberties outweigh the current benefits.”

Councillor Tim Toomey, however, said Monday that he was interested in talking anew about the cameras in light of “things going on around the country.”

“Cambridge is a major destination,” Toomey said. “If there is value in having cameras, it’s worth revisiting that. Things are changing in this world, and not in a good way.”

The issue of the cameras was raised by councillor Craig Kelley on the way to the council passing a $59,804 grant to the police department’s Extraordinary Expenditures account from the U.S. Department of Justice. The surveillance camera grant, though, came from Homeland Security.

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