At the system command center, more than a dozen different cameras were projected onto a large screen. They showed stairwells, train platforms and turnstiles as riders got on and off trains at the Grand Central, Times Square and Penn Station subway stops.
Transit officials have more than 3,000 cameras keeping track of the subway system, but only images from the three stations are fed live to a high-tech police monitoring center. The new subway cameras and hundreds of other private and public security cameras make up the NYPD's lower and midtown Manhattan security initiatives.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the subways remained at the top of the list of terrorist targets, and more than 5 million people ride the trains each day. A Pakistani immigrant, Faisal Shahzad, admitted plotting to bomb Times Square earlier this year, and last fall, a Colorado man and his associates were thwarted before they could attack three subway trains.
"Around the world, we've seen subway and rail lines attacked. In London, in Madrid, in Moscow, in Mumbai," Kelly said. "Having access to these MTA cameras gives us another crucial tool with which to protect New York's transit system."
Investigators analyze the images with the help of license-plate readers, environmental sensors and information from police reports.
A single high-bandwidth fiber optic network connects the cameras to a police computer system. That allows investigators to set up programs that search for suspicious activity, like an object in one place for a long time. The analytic software also is designed to take video and catalog it according to movements, shapes and colors, so officers can set parameters to search the system for anyone wearing, say, a red jacket.
They can also scroll through footage from any camera in the network going back as long as images are available. The department usually purges the images in 30 days.
The system is expected to incorporate 3,000 police and private cameras in the next few years. There are currently 1,159 operational cameras.
The cost is about $200 million, funded through grants from the Department of Homeland Security. But Bloomberg made clear it was a worthy investment of city funds, especially as it becomes more difficult to pay for workers.
"If anything, technology is the only ways we're going to continue to make this city safer and more efficient," he said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which just laid off workers and faced a massive budget cut, was criticized last year because many of its subway security cameras were not functioning. But MTA Chairman Jay Walder said Monday that 3,700 cameras were currently up and running in throughout the subway system — including the 500 that feed live images to the police department. Some cameras installed are still not operating because they are held up in litigation with the contractor.
The cameras will also help in solving lower-level subway crimes, though crime in the transit system is at record lows, with fewer than six crimes reported per day. Walder said it's possible more subway cameras will become part of the NYPD's security initiative.
The New York system is similar to London's "ring of steel" surveillance network, where more than 12,000 cameras watch for trouble. Officials there are adding even more cameras — enough to record the face of every person entering the system.
The NYPD says though it will have fewer cameras, the state-of-the-art technology implemented actually creates a more nimble, responsive system.