Subway Shooting Shows Surveillance Cameras Not Immune from MTA’s Maintenance Crisis

In September, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs the New York City subway, triumphantly announced that every single subway station had security cameras for the first time. Most had several, with more than 8,000 cameras throughout the system of 472 stations.

“If you are a criminal who preys on those who use our system, you will have your image captured and be put on the express track to justice,” said MTA Chief Safety Officer Patrick Warren in the press release. “The image will be delivered to the police, and the police will use it to find you.”

There was just one flaw with Warren’s vow: The cameras have to work.

When a man released two smoke grenades and started shooting inside a subway car on Tuesday morning in Brooklyn before fleeing the 36th St Station in Brooklyn, he was able to initially avoid immediate detection at least in part because the security cameras weren’t working, a fact the New York Times initially reported and Mayor Eric Adams later confirmed in a radio interview.

We currently don’t know much about the nature of the camera malfunctions, how much they impacted the ensuing investigation, or how widespread the camera malfunctions are. But the Times reports the malfunctions became “a significant obstacle in efforts to detain the gunman.” The NYPD has identified Frank James as a suspect in the case. The MTA acknowledged a Motherboard request for comment about the cameras but did not provide any information. 

Do you work for the Electronic Maintenance Division at New York City Transit? Know anything we should know? Contact Aaron Gordon at aaron.gordon@vice.com. 

But, for the transit agency responsible for the cameras, poorly maintained infrastructure is hardly a shocking revelation. A 2018 State Comptroller report found the agency’s Electronic Maintenance Division, the one responsible for maintaining the cameras, found 31 percent of expected preventative maintenance visits were never done and 26 percent of malfunctioning cameras took more than three days to repair.

The report covered January 1, 2014 to July 29, 2017, a time period that overlaps with the “Summer of Hell,” deteriorating subway service largely due to poor management, bureaucratic oversight, and profound maintenance failures

But it is not immediately clear how relevant The Comptroller’s report that predates the pandemic and reforms enacted under former New York City Transit president Andy Byford—who enacted a Group Station Manager program to assign clear lines of responsibility to station conditions—are to the current state of the security camera maintenance. Byford did not immediately respond to an email from Motherboard.

Cameras on the subway have a controversial history. Those in favor of more cameras argue they deter crime and help catch criminals. Skeptics, which often include civil rights and privacy-focused groups, argue they can be easily abused like any technology to police misdemeanors and other petty crimes as well as identify unhoused people. Last year, the MTA had to remove cameras used on the subway due to ties with a Chinese facial recognition company. There is also little evidence that more cameras reduce crime on the subway.  

Motherboard emailed Germaine Jackson, the person listed on the MTA’s website as the Group Station Manager for Team 12 which includes the 36 St station on Wednesday morning. She replied that she is not, in fact, the Group Station Manager for that station. The URL for the PDF linked above identifies the listing as from January 2019. It is the most updated roster of Group Station Managers available on the MTA’s website.

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