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Antiterror Cameras Capturing Crime on T

Posted on January 30, 2007

This story, written by Mac Daniel and Suzanne Smalley, appeared in the Boston Globe on January 29, 2007.

More than 450 security cameras watching for potential terrorists on the T are now helping catch alleged criminals.

Friday, MBTA Transit Police arrested a 27-year-old man accused of robbing a passenger at gunpoint at the Back Bay station. Such cases have often gone unsolved, officials said, and the arrest would have been far less likely without digital images from a surveillance camera at the station.

So far, about a dozen crimes have been solved with help from the cameras, and T police expect many more cases , including those from an investigation into a large ring of robbers.

The camera network "has aided us tremendously in identifying suspects that normally would not have been identified in the past," said Sergeant Detective Michael Adamson . "Hopefully, the word will get out that these cameras are in place and people will reconsider their actions before committing crimes on the MBTA."

He said that detectives have been increasingly successful with the cameras, and they are now routinely using them to narrow down suspects. He said that even when police are unable to positively identify a suspect with the digital images, they usually get promising leads by significantly enhancing a suspect's description to include details of clothing and distinguishing features, such as moles and tattoos.

In the Back Bay holdup, on a Saturday late last month, the victim described his assailant as a man with a tattoo on his neck, police said.

Transit police showed the victim photos of more than 100 known offenders with neck tattoos. When the victim picked someone out, police checked the digital surveillance cameras at Back Bay and found an image of the same man entering the station around the time of the robbery.

That helped police obtain an arrest warrant for Norman Ferguson of Roxbury, who was charged with armed robbery and possessing marijuana with intent to distribute .

Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley, said Ferguson was out on bail on a prior charge of assault and battery when he allegedly robbed the man at Back Bay station.

Ferguson, whose lawyer did not return phone calls seeking comment, was ordered held on $25,000 bail.

It was one of more than 200 robberies and attempted robberies on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system last year, according to Transit Police statistics obtained by the Globe.

The T has installed the cameras -- about 50 more will be put in by spring -- throughout the system, funded in part by $23 million in federal homeland security grants since 2002. The fiber-optic cameras, which record images with far more detail than older video cameras, are in place at every subway station and some bus stations and are monitored at a series of security hubs.

Adamson said that images from previous surveillance cameras were recorded on videotapes that were constantly reused. "You lose your clarity," he said. "Digital is stored . . . on a hard drive and it's much clearer."

He said the cameras have helped detectives locate and prosecute men who expose themselves to women on the MBTA, a somewhat common offense. "Detectives would meet with [the victim] to come in and look at pictures and that's basically it. Lacking any physical evidence, that's it -- we'd close the case."

Now detectives get a detailed description from victims, look at surveillance images for men who match the description, and put those images in a photo lineup. In a recent case on the Blue Line, police sent the selected photo to area police stations and discovered that the man had recently been arrested in Revere on similar charges.

Adamson said the cameras are also being used to investigate possible fraud by people who say they were injured by MBTA negligence.

"I had a guy tell me he fell down the stairs and we have him on video just sitting on the floor," he said.

Adamson said detectives are feeling so good about the technology's potential that they have gone shopping for other equipment.

"We just bought a new video enhancement system," he said, "because of the anticipated increase in forensic evidence that we'll be holding at the station."

Some T riders said they feel safer with the new cameras.

"I think it's a bonus that they're picking up other crimes" besides terrorism, Jenny Santangelo , 50, said yesterday at Back Bay station.

Joe Ward , 39, said he typically feels unsafe riding the T. "You never know what's going to happen," said Ward, of Watertown.

But Frederick Mwanzia , 35, of Roxbury, wondered how the recorded images will be used. "If a person is in a place and doesn't have an evil motive, it exposes that person's privacy," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts plans to seek more information about the program. Officials said they have many concerns about the use of the camera system. "This takes us one step closer to a total surveillance society," said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

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