Atlantic Cities

How Cash-Strapped Cities Will Handle Terrorism

How Cash-Strapped Cities Will Handle Terrorism
Reuters

The marathon bombings in Boston have cities across the country asking how they can prevent similar tragedies. For NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, when it comes to preparing for an attack in New York, "the new normal is the old normal." Kelly established a massive anti-terrorism unit after 9/11, and he credits it with stopping 16 criminal acts to date.

"There's a whole array of threats out there and we don't see a diminishment of the threat," Kelly told an audience today at New York Ideas, hosted by The Atlantic and the Aspen Ideas Institute.

But one thing certainly has changed: according to Kelly, the NYPD has 6,000 fewer officers than it did a decade or so ago. Most of those personnel cuts have come as the result of shrinking city budgets — another familiar tune for cities across the country. So how does a cash-strapped city keep up with terrorism in times of fiscal difficulty?

The short answer is public surveillance cameras. The long answer is smarter public surveillance cameras.

It's no secret that Manhattan is filled with cameras. Lower Manhattan, in particular, is blanketed with an intricate system of cameras and license-plate readers monitored by both public officials and the private sector. Kelly said the N.Y.P.D. has plans to move that same program up to midtown — specifically 30th to 60th streets — and to other vulnerable parts of the city as well.

Part of what makes this strategy so efficient, despite a reduction in the size of the police force, is that cameras are handling more of the workload on their own. Analytics enable the cameras to see something and say something, if you will: they can determine if a package has been left in a particular spot for a long period of time, for instance, and track back through files to find a person wearing a certain color shirt.

"Technology has been a major factor is allowing us to operate with 6,000 fewer officers," Kelly said.

At the same time, Kelly recognizes that cities will have to develop unique counter-terrorism measures, since the NUPD model won't work for everyone. Nor should it, according to Kelly's logic, since New York remains the most appealing target for terrorists in the United States. Instead, he says, cities must decide on approaches based on their individual cultures and levels of threat.

"They have to make their own decisions," he said.

Earlier in the day, speaking about technology in general, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said that different places will develop their own answers to "the core privacy question of the rights of the public versus individuals." Schmidt said he thought that, after Boston, American cities will become even more comfortable with the idea of cameras. Just like New York did years ago.

Top image: New York Police Department camera feeds are displayed on a screen inside of the Executive Command Center at NYPD headquarters in New York August 5, 2011. The NYPD has worked since 9/11 on a long-term project to permanently increase vigilance in Lower Manhattan and Midtown, home to prominent financial institutions and national landmarks. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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