the Mayor, the NYPD & cameras (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)
In response to an increase in reported anti-Semitic hate crimes and violent attacks, New York City and State are simultaneously implementing a permanent increase in surveillance in several predominantly Orthodox Jewish communities.
The new surveillance technology -- including 100 new NYPD cameras and state-funded cameras and license plate readers -- comes after high-profile attacks in Jersey City and Monsey in the final weeks of 2019 and a multi-year increase in reported hate crimes, many of them anti-Semitic. Amid calls from Haredi leaders for a heightened police presence and a corresponding vow from government officials to protect the physical safety of Jews, a robust public response to growing anti-Semitism has particular resonance 75 years after the Holocaust.
But this specific response also shines a light on the movement toward mass surveillance by both government and private actors, still considered Orwellian by some but accepted as part of modern life by others. Civil rights advocates and other government watchdogs are questioning the proportionality of responding to contemporary fears with a permanent security apparatus that could have other applications now and in the future.
Speaking at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio affirmed the city’s commitment to protect Jews.
“We confront [anti-Semitism] by doing the things that so many nations never did. We take our police force, we take our security forces, and we put them in the Jewish community to protect our people. That is what we must always do,” he said. He described the “cold feeling” of considering how few the non-Jews were who acted against the intolerance that foreshadowed genocide of 17 million people, including 6 million Jews.
The recent surge in anti-Semitism has faced lawmakers and residents with the question of what it means in the 21st century to stand with the Jewish community, especially those who are more easily identified as Jewish (either because they wear traditional attire or live in certain concentrated communities). In response, the city and state have each taken a combination of short- and long-term approaches, including education, reconciliation, and, most immediately, security.
According to NYPD data, anti-Semitic hate crimes rose 26 percent in 2019, and 86 percent between 2015 and 2019, doubling the rise in total hate crimes. The high concentration of violent incidents in December -- including a triple homicide at a kosher deli in Jersey City and a knife attack at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey -- have ignited calls to action at virtually every level of government.
In January, de Blasio reported the NYPD would be installing 100 new police cameras in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park -- three neighborhoods with large Orthodox Jewish populations -- as part of an effort to prevent and punish hate crimes. Days later, in response to the Monsey attack, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he was directing up to $680,000 in state funds for security cameras and license plate readers in Monsey and New Square, two Orthodox Jewish enclaves in Rockland County (the Monsey attacker was tracked to Manhattan and caught partially using a license plate reader).
“An attack on the Jewish community is an attack on all New Yorkers. These new security cameras will increase the NYPD’s visibility into these neighborhoods, and help our officers on the ground keep New Yorkers safe,” de Blasio said in a statement. One hundred and fifty additional police officers are now patrolling those streets, he said.
“This new technology will enhance security in vulnerable communities and serve as a deterrent for future attackers,” Cuomo said on January 13 when he allocated new funding to “harden” surveillance in the two hamlets. He also deployed more state police to patrol in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods throughout New York.
Representatives of Cuomo and de Blasio, both Democrats, told Gotham Gazette the new cameras and license plate readers would be permanent.
Asked by email whether there were plans to review the need for cameras in the future, like in the event of a downturn in anti-Semitic violence, mayoral spokesperson Olivia Lapeyrolerie wrote, “these cameras will be permanent.”
A spokesperson for the state police responded: “License plate readers (LPRs) are permanent installations that are employed by a number of state and local police and public safety agencies all over the state.” A spokesperson for Cuomo later clarified that the same is true of the additional security cameras.
While leaders of Orthodox Jewish communities have praised the measures, the permanent increase of government surveillance, especially in faith-based communities, has raised flags for civil liberties watchdogs.
“We shouldn’t engage in the business of dispensing with our privacy and security in some ways in order to gain a measure of comfort in others,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.
"I think we always need to balance the use of technology and government monitoring in a way that respects people's civil liberties,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, responding to a question at an unrelated press conference Tuesday. He said the city should avoid “doing anything in a dragnet-type of way, which we have seen happen in this country."
"But at this moment in time, I do think it's appropriate that we should be using our resources to protect neighborhoods across New York City that have been targeted with anti-Semitic violence and I am proud that the City of New York are taking those steps." he added.
A response to rising anti-Semitism -- mostly measured by an upswing in reported hate-motivated vandalism, with several violent assaults -- the efforts are also part of a decades-long proliferation of video surveillance, both from government and private entities, which has accelerated since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Security cameras are now ubiquitous throughout the city, forming a network of NYPD and private devices, which are often used to conduct police business whether involving counterterrorism or not. The mayor recently visited the new Homelessness Joint Command Center in Lower Manhattan, where multiple city agencies now monitor homeless people living on the street using dozens of police cameras in an effort to reach unsheltered New Yorkers more quickly.
Surveillance as Security
Civil liberties advocates have for years raised alarms about the dearth of information about how the cameras are used, especially by the police. With the expansion of artificial intelligence and biometric surveillance, like facial recognition technology, new questions arise about the power to monitor individuals and groups.
Civil rights advocates are concerned about the potential for abuse.
“There are significant unanswered questions that have to be asked in conjunction with the mounting of a massive video surveillance network in any community,” Lieberman said.
She listed examples: “What happens to the footage that is captured on video? Who has access? How long is it stored? Is it shared? Is it safeguarded in any way? And what kind of security is in place to protect against the wrongful use of this footage?”
“This is important because whatever benefits are anticipated, video surveillance doesn’t just capture the images of people who want to be on camera or who are engaged in wrongdoing. It captures everybody who goes by, and that is probably hundreds of thousands of people a month,” Lieberman added.
"It's something that the city of New York should be mindful of when we are putting in technology like this, how often do we check and see if it's necessary to be there? Do we want it to be there for 10 years, 20 years, 25 years,” Johnson said Tuesday.
While civil rights concerns are being played out in public debate, Orthodox Jewish leaders on the ground are seeking guarantees for their communities’ protection by the city and state.
“The handful of people who have criticized the increased police presence within the Orthodox Jewish community, guess what, they don’t live in those communities. So I laugh at that,” said David Greenfield, who formerly represented Borough Park in the City Council, in a recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast. “People want more police presence, they want more safety, they want more visibility, they want more deterrence and more of an ability for the police to respond quickly to these crimes that are happening.”
Asked whether the de Blasio administration believed mass surveillance was necessary for keeping all New Yorkers safe, and whether that is the direction the city as a whole is moving, Lapeyrolerie said that ship has already sailed: “There are security cameras all over the City – whether operated by the NYPD, MTA or private buildings.”
Other Approaches to Rising Anti-Semitism
Hate crimes rose 20 percent from 2018 to 2019 and anti-Semitic ones rose 26 percent even as crime in other categories fell, the NYPD reported this January. Of the 428 hate crimes reported in 2019, 234 of them were considered anti-Semitic. A vast majority of those hate crimes are categorized as “aggravated harassment,” including the drawing of swastikas, which were up by 55 incidents from 2018 to 2019, according to Chief of Crime Control Strategies Michael LiPetri.
At the state level, statistics released by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services show that anti-Jewish hate crimes, either against a person or property, have remained relatively flat since 2013, increasing less than five percent from 2017 to 2018, the last year data is available.
In addition to the new security technology and deployment of state police patrols, Cuomo has made $45 million available in security grants up to $50,000 for certain faith-based institutions, like schools and community centers ($25 million has already funded 500 projects since the start of the program in 2017, according to a press release). The governor has proposed another $25 million in his executive budget for next fiscal year, which would be available to a larger list of institutions, including houses of worship. He has also proposed designating certain hate crimes as acts of domestic terrorism, more school curriculum on diversity and tolerance, and expanding the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City to help facilitate school and other visits.
In New York City, the NYPD increased patrols and installed spotlights in some Brooklyn neighborhoods, and created the new Racially and Ethnically Motivated Extremism unit to investigate organized hate groups. In September, de Blasio launched the Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, which is already rolling out programming. The mayor is also launching inter-community “safety coalitions,” and directing the Department of Education to develop “hate crime awareness programming,” according to a recent press release.
And in the face of rising hate crimes, Cuomo, de Blasio, and others across the political spectrum have proposed revisiting bail reforms passed by the state Legislature in 2019. Those calls have been characterized by many as fear-mongering and based on tenuous connections, largely unsupported by NYPD data.
How Involved are Communities?
Lapeyrolerie said the city’s first 30 new cameras will be deployed by March “based on NYPD’s security analysis,” which would include looking at sites with frequent incidents of graffiti, for example. According to a press release, the remaining 70 cameras will be installed with the input of community members.
“We are finalizing what our community engagement process will look like, but will endeavor to ensure the process is inclusive,” Lapeyrolerie said.
Two weeks after announcing the new cameras, the mayor’s office announced the formation of three “anti-hate crime neighborhood safety coalitions,” operating in the same neighborhoods, modelled on other anti-violence programs in the city. When asked, Lapeyrolerie did not say whether these coalitions would be involved in placing the remaining 70 cameras.
The state is less forthcoming with information about where exactly the new tech will be and what it will monitor. “Information on location strategy will not be divulged as it is a police matter,” the state police spokesperson wrote.
Wherever they are located, it’s clear the license plate readers have the capacity to capture broad swaths of information. According to a press release from the governor’s office, “This technology automatically captures all license plate numbers that come into view, along with the location, date, and time. The data, which includes photographs of the vehicle, is then uploaded to a central server and relayed to police agencies across a wide area.”
In terms of access to NYPD footage, department spokesperson Al Baker told Gotham Gazette the NYPD stores footage for 30 days “unless video is required as part of an investigation” and “video access is permission-based.” He did not provide details on how to gain permission and who has the ability to grant it. In terms of safeguards for the wrongful use of footage, Baker wrote in an email: “Internal NYPD access is controlled by user permissions,” with footage watermarked with the permitted user’s name.
While they may help, it is hard to prove cameras deter hate crimes, but they may make it easier for police to catch perpetrators. The NYPD does not have a particularly high arrest rate for hate crimes, at just over 40 percent, as Gotham Gazette previously reported.
Whatever their potential value, advocates want to see protections accompany the use of police surveillance technologies.
“The fear is legitimate that between government and private surveillance, our lives are an open book there for the picking...because the safeguards are so absent,” Lieberman said.
"I think that for people who believe that, ‘Well, if you haven’t done anything wrong what do you have to hide?’ -- all we have to do is take a look at the corruption at the highest levels of government to know that we all have enormous cause for concern when a combination of government and private actors is tracking our every move," she said.