When a rash of armed robberies broke out in Brookline near Boston University in the past year, Police Chief Daniel O’Leary said, surveillance camera footage was key to the identification and arrest of three groups of suspects.
None of the footage came from cameras operated by his department, but O’Leary said the arrests are a prime example of why the town should embrace more video surveillance. All seven of the suspects arrested in the robbery cases are either incarcerated or being monitored by GPS tracking devices until their trials, Brookline’s police chief said.
Now, four years after Town Meeting passed a resolution asking officials to remove Brookline’s surveillance cameras, O’Leary is seeking permission for his department to use 11 cameras installed around town 24 hours a day.
Late last month, a town committee overseeing the use of the cameras agreed with the chief and voted 4-0 to recommend that the Board of Selectmen abolish a policy preventing police from routinely using surveillance cameras between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Selectmen are likely to revisit the topic in September, said the board’s chairwoman, Betsy DeWitt. Attitudes toward surveillance cameras may be changing, DeWitt said, particularly in light of the prominent role they played in the Boston Marathon bombings investigation, and the widespread use of cellphone cameras.
“People may be viewing the use of cameras in a different way,” she said.
But opposition to surveillance cameras remains strong among some residents, who say citizens should not be so willing to give up their civil liberties.
“It’s not about a right to privacy in public places,” said Sarah Wunsch, a Brookline resident and a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “It’s about not having the government follow you every step, keeping a database of wherever you go.”
Clint Richmond, a Town Meeting member who has opposed the use of surveillance cameras, said he doesn’t think any new arguments are being presented in favor of using them more. He said the crime rate is low in Brookline, and, outside of the Police Department, there have been few calls to keep the cameras on all day.
“Almost nobody is asking for more surveillance,” he said. “This is America, land of the free, they want to be able to walk around without somebody watching them.”
Susan Howards, the chairwoman of the committee overseeing the use of town surveillance cameras, said her panel paid close attention to how many police investigations could have been assisted if the video devices had been available. The committee also considered that there is no right to privacy in a public place, said Howards, and that there has never been a complaint filed with the town about the Police Department’s handling of the cameras.
The Boston Marathon bombings in April were not the basis for the committee’s discussion, Howards said, but the attack was, at least in the back of her mind, extremely important.
“I think that was a turning point for Boston,” she said.
Kade Crockford, the director of the state ACLU chapter’s Technology for Liberty Project, said people should use caution in rushing to increase the use of cameras after a tragedy such as the Marathon bombings.
She said the recent scandal around the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices, which include the collection of data on most telephone calls made in the United States, has appalled many who had supported the passage of the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“A lot of people are having buyer’s remorse about having bought into the Patriot Act,” Crockford said.
O’Leary said he first approached the oversight committee in January about increasing the use of the town’s surveillance cameras.
The chief said that since 2010, there have been 284 incidents in which the cameras may have assisted with investigations but the devices weren’t on. O’Leary said 122 of the incidents were traffic related, 57 were property crimes, and 54 were violent crimes.
Brookline’s policy on the use of the cameras does allow police to activate the devices during the day if a crime has been reported. Police can also keep the cameras on during daylight hours for special events, such as the Boston Marathon.
But O’Leary said that when a crime is reported, it takes about five minutes for police to activate a camera in the area of the incident, giving perpetrators time to flee before they can be caught on tape.
In cases such as the armed robberies in North Brookline near Boston University last fall and in January, O’Leary said, police were able to obtain camera footage of the suspects from private property, the Brookline Housing Authority, and the MBTA. While O’Leary said private property owners have been very cooperative with police by providing access to their camera footage, obtaining the footage can take time.
Marty Rosenthal, a cochairman of Brookline PAX, a local social and political action group that has opposed the cameras, questioned why public cameras are needed when there has been a proliferation of private cameras.
Rosenthal said the number of serious crimes in which the cameras would be used in Brookline is relatively low, and the question becomes whether it is worth giving up one’s privacy for those few cases.
“In my mind, it’s not worth it,” he said.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when Town Meeting approved a resolution asking the town to remove its surveillance cameras. The vote was four years ago.