Look closely at the new Pulse rapid bus transit stops being installed along Broad Street and you might notice something previously unseen at GRTC bus stops: cameras.
Each of the 26 new stops, built to accommodate the bus line's need for more efficient transit, includes about four cameras, making for more than 100 new surveillance devices on the roughly 7.5-mile stretch of Broad Street from Shockoe Bottom to Willow Lawn.
These stationary cameras will always be on, day and night, and their live feeds will be viewable from 911 headquarters, through the city's Department of Emergency Communications, as well as at GRTC's radio room.
The cameras were funded with money from a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, which paid for about half of the $49.8 million project. They are required as part of the grant and are installed and maintained under American Public Transportation Association standards.
This new system will bring the total number of easily accessible, city or government-owned cameras available to police and other authorities to more than 300, including roughly 200 stationary cameras Richmond police already have easy access to, and 32 cameras owned by city police.
At a time when private companies like Facebook come under renewed scrutiny about their collection of private information, this new Pulse camera system has privacy advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, concerned.
"Generally, the use of government-operated or -sanctioned video surveillance cameras in public spaces is troubling in a democratic society," says Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for the Virginia ACLU. "In practice, the use of these systems and the data they collect is almost always expanded, giving law enforcement more information than they need or should have about the personal lives of law-abiding people."
While GRTC officials say they're unable to divulge the technical specifics of the cameras, including how much, how far and at what resolution the cameras capture activities around the bus stops, they did say the cameras exist to maintain "station security and operations viewing."
They also say the cameras don't have facial recognition technology. There will be a public education campaign as well as signs about the cameras at the stops.
Carrie Rose Pace, director of communications for GRTC Transit System, says these cameras will be the first set of stationary cameras for the publicly owned company, but most of the system's 115 buses already have about four mounted cameras each.
Their storage policy for the new cameras is the same for the old ones. The transit company will hold the footage on their servers for seven days and will cooperate "with any police/government investigations, and can upon request and approval make viewing available for private individuals or civil matters."
"Security cameras are a critical element of successful and safe BRT operations," Pace says in an email. She stresses the cameras will help assess immediate safety needs of patrons as they use the new transit system. "We can immediately see the need and respond accordingly."
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, says her group, which advocates for police departments across the Commonwealth, welcomes the addition of these cameras, which could play an important role in future police work.
"[Cameras can aid] in the search for missing children, abducted persons and wanted offenders," she says by email. "Video from transit surveillance could be key in determining the location of an individual who is either wanted or missing and in danger."
She also stresses the legality of placing cameras in areas that are considered public spaces.
"The courts long have held that there is no expectation of privacy when we enter a public place," Schrad says, noting that police officials often get help from cameras owned by private people and businesses if authorities believe it will help an investigation and the camera owners give permission.
Such was the case last summer when a man was arrested because of security footage given to police by Boulevard Burger & Brew, one of the companies robbed.
Still, this 50 percent increase in easily available cameras shouldn't be treated lightly, according to Farrar.
"Video surveillance has a chilling effect on public life, bringing about subtle but profound changes to the way people act and carry themselves in public when they know the government is watching," he says.
He also questions why a camera system is being installed on a transportation system that services those who rely on it "for access to education, employment and basic necessities including food."
"It is questionable what future problem authorities believe they are solving, and why they feel that particular group warrants [more than 100] always-on cameras to keep tabs on them 24 hours a day." S