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    Electronic eyes watching bus passengers

    Sixteen Pinellas County buses have cameras and microphones aboard that monitor what passengers do and say. Eventually, 100 more buses will get the equipment.

    By MONIQUE FIELDS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 27, 2001


    Pinellas County's bus system has outfitted 16 buses with $9,700 in audio and video equipment that records passengers' movements and conversations.

    Each Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus has five cameras that cover every inch of the passenger compartment. Signs that measure about 4 by 5 inches on the buses read: "Audio Monitoring on These Premises."

    The cameras are held in place by nondescript compartments on the roof of the bus. A microphone the size of a half-dollar is positioned a few feet from the driver.

    The installation of cameras and audio equipment, aimed at improving safety, raises questions about the riders' right to privacy, say some passengers and legal observers.

    Several riders said they didn't notice the cameras, and some said they wondered why they were needed. Others said they had no problem with them.

    The project has been planned since June, so it is not a security measure in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Cameras and microphones have been installed on PSTA buses for safety and to deter false injury claims and crime, said Roger Sweeney, executive director of the PSTA.

    The cameras may help resolve a dispute, he said, or provide evidence in a traffic accident.

    By this time next year, 100 more PSTA buses will have cameras and audio equipment. The PSTA has received verbal approval for a $1.1-million grant from the Federal Transit Administration and is expecting final approval Oct. 31.

    Nationally, cameras are becoming more common on buses as transit authorities fend off lawsuits and address safety, said Amy Coggin, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association, a nonprofit trade association representing public transportation systems. Administrators of HARTline buses in Tampa have considered installing cameras, but the expense has made it a low priority, said Ed Crawford, HARTline spokesman.

    Pinellas schools have 160 buses with cameras, and school districts in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Hillsborough have installed cameras on school buses or purchased customized buses with cameras.

    The PSTA first added cameras to buses after a rowdy bunch of students hung out of windows and vandalized a bus on Route No. 94 last year. In May 2000, the transit authority considered terminating the route, which took about 175 students to and from Coachman Fundamental Middle School each day.

    The route stayed intact, with some provisions. Parents agreed to control their children's behavior, and the School Board loaned cameras to the PSTA so the wrongdoers could be caught on tape.

    The PSTA decided to expand the surveillance in June.

    A reporter began asking questions about the program Friday. But officials either failed to return telephone calls or refused to provide information until Wednesday, when Sweeney spoke about the surveillance at a PSTA board meeting. The buses are equipped with a computer that records audio and video. Unless someone prevents it, it automatically records over previously recorded material every 72 hours.

    PSTA's staff discussed privacy issues before installing the cameras and decided to place signs in the buses.

    "As long as you alert the public that it's being recorded, and they have a choice of accepting that or not accepting that, then it is within the law," Sweeney said.

    Alison Steele, a St. Petersburg attorney who represents the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues, agrees.

    "It is a public place, and the law permits audio recording in a public place. I think it always has," she said.

    But lawyer Bruce Howie still isn't comfortable.

    "We are concerned about how the information is used, stored and how it's disposed and especially concerned about audio monitoring of conversations," said Howie, who is chairman of the legal panel for the Pinellas Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The signs would not be enough because you are presuming people are literate, observant and visually unimpaired."

    Cameras also raise questions about whether the recordings would be a public record and likely would pit the public's right to know against an individual's privacy, he said.

    Steele says the recordings are indeed public.

    There was no consensus about cameras among passengers. Some weren't concerned.

    "Sometimes things happen on buses. I think it's all right to have a record of what's going on," said Willie Smith, a machine operator who rides a bus to and from work.

    Others oppose the cameras.

    "I think it's kind of weird, kind of Big Brotherish," said Kevin McDevitt, a regular rider. "I'm from New York, and this is definitely not like the subway."

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