By Bob Drogin
Lancaster, Pa., keeps a close eye on itself
A vast and growing web of security cameras monitors the city of 55,000, operated by a private group of self-appointed gatekeepers. There’s been surprisingly little outcry.
Reporting from Lancaster, Pa. — This historic town, where America’s founding fathers plotted during the Revolution and Milton Hershey later crafted his first chocolates, now boasts another distinction.
It may become the nation’s most closely watched small city.
Some 165 closed-circuit TV cameras soon will provide live, round-the-clock scrutiny of nearly every street, park and other public space used by the 55,000 residents and the town’s many tourists.
Unlike anywhere else, cash-strapped Lancaster outsourced its surveillance to a private nonprofit group that hires civilians to tilt, pan and zoom the cameras — and to call police if they spot suspicious activity. No government agency is directly involved.
Perhaps most surprising, the near-saturation surveillance of a community that saw four murders last year has sparked little public debate about whether the benefits for law enforcement outweigh the loss of privacy.
“Years ago, there’s no way we could do this,” said Keith Sadler, Lancaster’s police chief. “It brings to mind Big Brother, George Orwell and ‘1984.’ It’s just funny how Americans have softened on these issues.”
“No one talks about it,” agreed Scott Martin, a Lancaster County commissioner who wants to expand the program.
A few dozen people attended four community meetings held last spring to discuss what sponsors called “this exciting public safety initiative.” But opposition has grown since big red bulbs, which shield the video cameras, began appearing on corner after corner.
Mary Pat Donnellon, head of Mission Research, a local software company, vowed to move if she finds one on her block. “I don’t want to live like that,” she said. “I’m not afraid. And I don’t need to be under surveillance.”
“No one has the right to know who goes in and out my front door,” agreed David Mowrer, a laborer for a company that supplies quarry pits. “That’s my business. That’s not what America is about.”
Hundreds of municipalities — including Los Angeles and at least 36 other California cities — have built or expanded camera networks since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In most cases, Department of Homeland Security grants helped cover the cost.
In the most ambitious project, New York City police announced plans several years ago to link 3,000 public and private security cameras across Lower Manhattan
“It’s not like we’re making headlines as the worst crime-ridden city in the country,” said Craig Stedman, the county’s district attorney. “We have an average amount of crime for our size.”
“Per capita, we’re the most watched city in the state, if not the entire United States,” said Joseph Morales, a city councilman who is executive director of the coalition. “There are very few public streets that are not visible to our cameras.”
The digital video is transmitted to a bank of flat-screen TVs at coalition headquarters, several dingy offices beside a gas company depot.
A license plate could be read a block away, and a face even farther could be identified.
He called up another feed and focused on a woman sitting on the curb.
Morales said he tries to weed out voyeurs and anyone who might use the tapes for blackmail or other illegal activity.
“We are not directly responsible to law enforcement or government at this point,” he said.
Morales, 45, has a master’s degree in public administration. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he grew up mostly on Army bases. “I made a lot of bad choices,” he said. “Substance abuse was part of that.”
Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, says the coalition’s role as a self-appointed, self-policed gatekeeper for blanket surveillance of an entire city is unique.
“This is the first time, the only time, I’ve heard of it anywhere,” she said. “It is such a phenomenally bad idea that it is stunning to me.”
She said the coalition structure provides no public oversight or accountability, and may be exempt from state laws governing release of public records.
J. Richard Gray, Lancaster’s mayor since 2005, backs the program
His campaign treasurer, Larry Hinnenkamp, a tax attorney and certified public accountant, took a stronger view. He “responded with righteous indignation” when a camera was installed without prior notice by his home.
“I used to give it the finger when I walked by,” Hinnenkamp said.