Bronx Prosecutors Want to Keep an Eye on You

A sign, photographed on April 6, informs passersby in the Westchester Square neighborhood that video surveillance is in use. Photo: Ese Olumhense/THE CITY

This story was originally published on April 12, 2019 by THE CITY.

Smile: You’re on DA camera.

Over the last six months, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark’s office has quietly enlisted some 4,000 new eyes on the street: Surveillance cameras at private businesses, houses, apartment buildings and schools.

But not everyone is ready for their close up: Privacy and civil liberties advocates are on alert.

The program, dubbed “Computer Assisted Mapping System” (CAMS), launched in October and is described as an “intranet” for the thousands of cameras prosecutors have enrolled in The Bronx.

When a home or business owner signs their security cameras up, the location is added to a database that feeds an interactive map. Then, as prosecutors investigate a crime, they can enter an address and find nearby cameras that may have valuable evidence.

Prosecutors say handing over the footage is not compulsory.

“We are looking for camera evidence in a whole host of cases because we have an arrest in front of us, or we have an investigation in front of us and we have witnesses telling us how something went and we need to corroborate that, or at least discover if it’s true,”  said Kerry Chicon, chief of strategic enforcement and intergovernmental relations at The Bronx DA’s office.

Many Details Remain Out of Sight

But there are some truths the public still doesn’t know about the program: Though Chicon said most of the cameras, as of mid-February, were in the southern parts of the borough, her office has declined to share any locations, citing confidentiality.

Officials also couldn’t cite any specific cases in which CAMS footage has been used – or say how frequently CAMS footage has been used as evidence.

“We don’t know yet,” a spokeswoman for Clark said in an emailed response to THE CITY. “It’s too new. We rolled out the program … in October 2018 and ADAs and paralegals have started to look at it on their cases.”

The spokeswoman said the system was built “in-house.”

Around 4,000 cameras are now enrolled in the six-month-old program, the district attorney’s office said. That’s up from the nearly 1,000 cameras The Bronx Times reported in late January.

Still, most Bronx residents who spoke with THE CITY had never heard of the program. Neither had The Bronx Defenders – which has a team of public defenders working cases in Bronx Criminal Court – nor the New York Civil Liberties Union, which monitors privacy and surveillance.

Security cameras at East 149th Street. The Bronx District Attorney hopes to enroll public and private cameras in the Computer Assisted Mapping System, or CAMS. Photo: Ese Olumhense/THE CITY

“We’re very curious ourselves!” a spokeswoman at The Bronx Defenders said in an emailed response.

THE CITY canvassed some of The Bronx’s busiest retail districts in search of business owners participating in CAMS. In conversations in the Third Avenue area, Westchester Square and on and around Fordham Road, dozens of owners, managers and workers at bodegas, pawn shops, newsstands, pharmacies, clothing stores, restaurants and more, said they knew nothing about CAMS.

“Nothing,” said Awilda Ortiz, manager of Zodiac Jewelry on Third Avenue, located steps from the heavily trafficked intersection of East 149 Street and Third, Willis and Melrose Avenues. “And I’m here seven days a week.”

Outreach is ongoing in the Third Avenue area, according to Michael Brady, executive director of the South Bronx’ Third Avenue BID, which includes one of the borough’s busiest commercial districts.

Giving prosecutors access to its cameras was the BID’s first phase of its CAMS rollout, Brady said. The BID plans to speak to area business owners about the program through the spring, he added.

“They are very open to it,” Brady said. “It comes down to public safety.”

Meanwhile, many Bronx residents had mixed feelings about the CAMS concept.

“Not for nothing, I can see why this is something the district attorneys feel they need,” said Christian Davis, who lives in Highbridge. “Things do happen out here…. I guess what doesn’t sit right with me is the fact that this popped off without people really knowing. I didn’t see it on the news, or hear about it from anybody. And I live here in The Bronx. It’s really some sci-fi s–t.”

‘Everyone is Being Filmed’

Civil liberties advocates are equally wary.

“There’s potentially a problem with how the DA’s office has gone about this, which is reliance on private businesses, private individuals, to basically perform a public function by handing over footage from these cameras,” said Michael Sisitsky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s essentially a way around external oversight if they’re relying on all of these private feeds to generate data for them.”

CAMS doesn’t provide officials with a live feed, the district attorney’s office said. And a spokeswoman said a list of participants has not been shared with the NYPD.

While CAMS has its critics, there are cheerleaders, too. Some business leaders say they’re are encouraging merchants to team with The Bronx DA’s office.

“When all the [business improvement districts] met with the DA’s office [to discuss CAMS], this was something we were in favor of,” said Lisa Sorin, president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce. “Anything that makes the process faster and more efficient, we’re in favor of that.”

And while Sorin and Brady said they understood the concerns from some in the community, both noted that the cameras in the database were already there — the DA’s office is not installing new ones.

“Everyone is being filmed anyway,” Sorin said.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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