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Cameras on TransLink

Transit authority takes measures on public transit assaults

We all get away with things at the backs of the bus, but soon enough, passengers will think twice when they ride in Vancouver. TransLink and the Coast Mountain Bus Company (CMBC) are currently testing video surveillance on eight of the city's new trolley buses. According to Ken Hardie, communications director with TransLink, "by the end of this year, 200 buses should have cameras, and by the end of 2008, about 350."

This major investment comes as part of a new effort to increase security presence on public transit, leaving some to wonder what issue the cameras are addressing. Doug MacDonald, director of communications with CMBC, explains, "There were about 240 assaults on drivers last year. That's everything from a verbal assault, spitting, to a fairly violent assault." In early 2006, a bus driver was severely beaten, suffering a broken lip and loss of teeth.

But does this constitute a valid reason to install surveillance? Micheal Vonn is policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). She explains that, according to the Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia, the company must answer two questions in order to defend their decision to install cameras.

The first demands a justification for a camera system.

TransLink and CMBC provide two. Primarily, Hardie believes that the cameras will act as a deterrent. As a result, he says "People are not going to get involved with graffiti, and they're not going to misbehave."

However, recent studies have shown cameras to be ineffective as a deterrent in public space: "Cameras are only effective in very, very limited situations, and I'm not aware of public transit being one of them," says Vonn. "And against assaults, cameras have zero effect as a deterrent."

Secondly, Hardie argues that in extreme cases of assault, "the video record becomes something that's useful in court." But for Micheal Vonn, this explanation "doesn't follow logically. It's hard to imagine that you're lacking witnesses on public transport. [I don't think] that we've got a major prosecutorial problem with these assaults."

The Privacy Commissioner's second question asks the company to state their previous attempts to address the problem. "We take the position that cameras are not necessarily unjustified in public space," says Vonn. "The point is that it should be the last recourse." Other than occasional security checks on buses or the SkyTrain, however, the new trolley buses mark TransLink's first major initiative to combat assault.

So what explanation is there for the surveillance installation? Ken Hardie claims that it was merely TransLink responding to public demand: "The actual call to put cameras on buses really came from the public and the operators, people who have a stake in security."

But as for the public input, Hardie admits, "There was no specific consultation campaign, to go out and talk about this." Instead, TransLink gathered public opinion, "more in the general, ongoing monitoring we do of the public's sense of safety and security on the system."

Micheal Vonn responds, "It's possible that they've received some indications from discreet members of the public, saying, 'We think cameras are great,' but this doesn't constitute an effective public consultation. There are people who feel otherwise."

Furthermore, the operators have already raised objections to the cameras. In fact, Hardie says the drivers union "didn't want cameras capturing stuff that could lead to disciplinary action against operators." Thus the system is designed to capture video only when triggered. Doug MacDonald says triggers occur "usually by a heavy-brake application, and there is also a switch that the driver can activate." This begs the obvious question: how are operators going to trigger the cameras when being assaulted?

Clearly, there is a major discrepancy in TransLink's account. Their justifications seem unfounded and are unlikely to be effective in addressing any problem. The operators are wary of the idea, and it seems strange that a public would ask for cameras when, according to Hardie himself, "Generally speaking, people feel quite safe on the SkyTrain and on the buses."

Micheal Vonn speculates, "I simply think that the means were made available. There has been a certain amount of federal money for these types of surveillance initiatives on public transit post-9/11. That's at least the first piece of the puzzle."

Whether a legitimate reason lies behind the cameras, or they're merely a frivolous expenditure, a troubling question mark remains for which no one seems to have an answer.