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Security camera plans worry BART passengers

(The following story by Anna Belle Peevey appeared on the Contra Costa Times website on November 2.)

BERKELEY, Calif. — Touted by officials as a safeguard against terrorist threats, a new security system that would increase the number of surveillance cameras in BART locations has some passengers anxious about possible violations of their privacy.

"It's kind of creepy to feel like you're constantly being watched the minute you walk into a BART station," said Heather Mehl, 22, as she waited earlier this week on the platform for a Richmond train to take her to El Cerrito. "It makes me feel like a criminal when I haven't done anything wrong."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office announced Monday that BART will receive $5.4 million to upgrade and increase its security camera system on about one-third of its trains and at all 43 stations. The new cameras will be placed in stations, on cars, along tracks and platforms and in parking lots and other areas of the regional rail agency. The money comes from a $140 million fund worked into this year's state budget to increase security in California's public transportation systems. The money, dispensed by the state Department of Homeland Security, was approved in November when voters passed the $20 billion Proposition 1B transportation bond issue.

The threat of terrorist incidents is one of the main concerns for additional security on BART, which provides about 350,000 trips daily. After the 2005 bombing attacks in London, cities began ramping up camera presence on street corners, at stoplights and in subway tunnels. Other major U.S. cities also have increased security cameras in their public transportation systems.

"Mass transit, light rail and the subway train system are targets," said Jay Alan, spokesman for California's Department of Homeland Security.

The Bay Area is "of prime significance simply in terms of the sheer number of people," he added.

The cameras would add to the equipment already installed in BART trains. "We're dealing with a pretty old system," said BART police Chief Gary Gee. "Not every station has the same capability, and we're trying to standardize them to make the whole system safe."

Software in special "smart cameras" will be able to detect suspicious activity, such as abandoned bags on waiting platforms. BART police officers will monitor the footage from remote locations or police stations and dispatch authorities if necessary. BART does not have the staff for round-the-clock observation, so the system will depend on spot checks and automatic alerts. For security reasons, when and where the cameras will be placed is not being disclosed.

"I love it," said Carole Ward Allen, chairwoman of the BART Safety and Security Committee. "Just getting this money allows us to make improvements that will make our customers more safe."

Mark Beyeler, 58, who travels by BART to San Francisco daily, said he had some reservations about the cameras, but that "if it creates greater safety without eroding civil liberties, I'm for it."

Some say they are concerned about what they see as excessive surveillance in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, society.

"There's a heightened sensitivity to government intrusion right now," commuter Scott Petigrew said as he waited for his train. But, he added, "there should be no expectation of privacy in a public place, and BART is a public place."

One of the main problems BART passengers encounter, said station agent Kaitana Hawkins, 38, is the "transients that want to make the train their rolling motel, who stretch out and stink up the cars."

She said that currently, in order to catch someone, a patron must inform a station agent like her. The agent then calls BART police, who go from car to car looking for the person. "The opportunity to have security cameras would make it that much easier to find those people," Hawkins said.

BART officials estimate they will need $250 million to complete the projected security system upgrades. Beyond a uniform camera security system, proposed additional safety measures include bomb-sniffing dogs and chemical, biological and radiological contamination detection -- but first BART must wait for another allotment of funds.

Despite the increasing security concerns, many BART riders have other potential dangers on their minds.

"Honestly," said Elena Eger, an Oakland lawyer who rides BART about once a week, "I'm more afraid of the germs on BART than I am of anything else."

Friday, November 2, 2007

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