Henny Ray Abrams/AP
New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly discusses Saturday evening's Times Square bombing attempt during a news conference. The still photo image taken from a surveillance camera shows the Nissan Pathfinder used in the attack crossing through Times Square.
New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly discusses Saturday evening's Times Square bombing attempt during a news conference. The still photo image taken from a surveillance camera shows the Nissan Pathfinder used in the attack crossing through Times Square. Henny Ray Abrams/AP
Police said Thursday they have two new surveillance videos of Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American accused of the attempted car bombing Saturday in Times Square.
One video shows him buying fireworks in northeast Pennsylvania. The other shows him in New York City's Times Square on the evening of the attempted attack.
But the emergence of the videos — after Shahzad's arrest late Monday as he tried to leave the country — has raised questions about the effectiveness of surveillance cameras as an investigative tool.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
A private security camera in New York City's Times Square. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly argues that surveillance cameras are useful — and he wants more of them.
A private security camera in New York City's Times Square. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly argues that surveillance cameras are useful — and he wants more of them. Mario Tama/Getty Images
Shahzad, 30, faces terrorism and weapons charges after authorities said he admitted rigging his Nissan Pathfinder with a homemade bomb of firecrackers, propane tanks and alarm clocks. The vehicle was parked in the center of New York's entertainment district, but the explosives fizzled, producing only smoke.
Times Square has more security cameras per square foot than almost anywhere else in the United States. Soon after the Times Square bomb failed to explode, a surveillance video went viral. It showed a man pulling off a shirt, stuffing it in a backpack, and looking over his shoulder in the direction of the car bomb.
The search for the man in the image was on. Then, on Monday morning, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told CNN the man was not a suspect.
"He could be totally innocent. This was one of the first videos we obtained. We thought it warranted an interview. But this happened just around the time that the pop started to go off inside the car," Kelly said.
The video was a false lead. The man taking his shirt off apparently had nothing to do with the bombing. Shahzad was captured using other investigative techniques and the two videos of him were discovered later.
But Kelly still argues that surveillance cameras are useful — and he wants more of them.
"You're not going to have every inch of an area like Times Square covered with cameras. I personally would like to, but that's simply not feasible now," Kelly told NPR.
"But sure, if we could have human beings in every location and they were aware of their surroundings and vigilant that would be even better than cameras. They're not mutually exclusive, that's for sure," he said.
But former FBI agent Mike German says in some ways, they are mutually exclusive.
"It's very expensive, so that takes money out of other crime-fighting programs," said German, who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The police officer has to be taken off the street and put behind the cameras to monitor and handle the evidence that comes in. So you really start to suck a lot of resources away from what has long proved to be the most effective model, which is policemen on the street doing their job."
Some call it the needle-in-a-haystack problem: Police have to spend hours combing through footage for an image that may not even be there.
But a former director of the U.S. Secret Service says that is a price worth paying. "We're not saying this is the panacea for preventing or identifying; it's one of the tools that law enforcement uses in order to either gather information or eliminate suspects," said Ralph Basham of Command Consulting Group, an international security consultant firm in Washington, D.C.
"So it's just a tool that I believe is very important in the process of determining what has happened," said Basham, who is also a former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
That tool may become even more effective if facial recognition technology improves. Police hope someday they'll be able to use computers for an initial survey of a crowd. Then human eyes could do the final analysis.
Cameras are better in some settings than others. They can reliably watch everybody who enters a building, for example. They are less dependable outdoors, where the lighting and weather can change hourly.
Cameras can also help exonerate people who are innocent of crimes.
Eyewitness testimony can be dangerously unreliable, Basham said. "When someone is involved in an incident, what they say after the incident doesn't necessarily always reflect what happened," he said.
In those cases, Basham said, mechanical eyes can sometimes be more reliable than human ones.