FORT GREENE — Who's watching the watchers?
It may seem like there's a surveillance camera everywhere you look, but in the spots that you might expect them most — outside police station houses — they are not working in a number of cases, according to an NYPD source.
The situation has prompted a sharp reaction from critics, including one who says it is a "huge problem" and an issue of "safety and security."
Outdoor precinct cameras would have been helpful in a number of recent incidents where events are either in dispute or in the attempt to catch suspects.
Last month, the mother of a teen filed a lawsuit claiming her son, Laquan Nelson, went inside the 88th precinct in Clinton Hill asking for help before he was shot to death outside.
There were no working cameras outside the precinct and those inside were pointed at the holding cells, according to the source.
Instead of cameras, the precinct has an officer standing watch, the source said.
Now the case is relying on police officers' claims that the teen did not ask for help and the family's assertion that he did.
“The tragic death of Laquan Nelson has illuminated a blind spot in the safety of all cops and civilians coming in and out of these buildings," said city Councilwoman Vanessa L. Gibson, who serves as the chairwoman of the Council's Committee on Public Safety.
Last December, an officer's car was burned outside the 77th precinct in Crown Heights. No surveillance footage was captured in that incident, either.
In that case, police were forced to canvass the area for private surveillance video and two additional officers were assigned to monitor the station house.
The results of that case were not clear.
For many, the lack of cameras is also surprising given that there are more than 3,000 police security cameras set up in public spaces throughout the city as part of the NYPD's "Domain Awareness System."
The initiative, under the Bloomberg administration and former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, was called a "transformative" tool for law enforcement to access real-time crime data.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has also been working to outfit officers with body cameras, especially in the wake of the death of Eric Garner, who died as a result of a police chokehold that was captured on video by a bystander.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has advocated for cameras to be added to all subway cars.
"When something happens, to have a video record of it from the police officer's perspective, it's going to help in many, many ways. It's going to improve the work of law enforcement," de Blasio said in December.
The exact number of precincts without working cameras outside is unclear, but police said that all precincts have cameras inside.
A source said that many precincts don't have cameras outside the station to protect the identity of victims who are coming and going from the building.
The source also said that several precincts have officers that are assigned to monitor the perimeter of the building — making cameras unnecessary.
According to Gibson, precinct cameras also work to keep officers inside the precinct safe.
“I would support the addition of security cameras to entrances of NYPD precincts as I believe they would protect both police officers and civilians alike," she said.
But Maria Haberfeld, a professor of law, police science and criminal justice at John Jay College, called the lack of precinct security cameras "a huge problem."
"It is definitely an issue of safety and security, for both the public and the police officers," she said. "I am always surprised that the public does not demand a better equipped, state-of-the art, police force for a city that is considered to be one of the capitals of the modern world."
Robert Perris, district manager for Community Board 2, where the 88th Precinct is located, said the lack of cameras at the precinct is hypocritical given how much police rely on surveillance footage from other establishments.
“I have often heard precinct commanders recommend that commercial establishments install video cameras and recording equipment," he said. "I don’t understand why they would not follow their own advice.”
The mayor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.