NYPD to Surveil Washington Square Park Visitors in Real Time From Within the Park

Updated February 10th, 11:13 a.m. building_washington_square_park_to_house_nypd_1
Early last year, this blog was tipped off that the soon-to-open building in Washington Square Park, home to the Parks Department district offices and restrooms for the park, was set to also harbor … the New York City Police Department. This had never been discussed over years of meetings about the park’s controversial redesign but, in March 2014, Washington Square Park Administrator Sarah Neilson confirmed that there had been “conversations” regarding the NYPD moving into the new building.

Where those conversations went was established last week: NYPD’s future post within Washington Square Park is set to proceed. Last week, Neilson told the Community Board 2 Parks Committee that the NYPD would be “using a room in the park house” for “monitoring videos.” She stated that this “is in motion right now” and “They’ll be in there doing the same thing [they did in trailer on Washington Square South].”

Except that is not quite accurate.

NYPD CURRENTLY HAS TRAILER OUTSIDE PARK ON WASHINGTON SQUARE SOUTH

It is true that the NYPD has had a trailer outside of the park along Washington Square South since some point in the 1980s (UPD/Ed. note: Date is a bit unclear. It may have been later than this). There are a zillion wires poking out of it and crawling high above along tree limbs which lead to the surveillance cameras in the park. (See photos below.) At a Community Board meeting in 2010, it was revealed that, with the park’s redesign, there would be “9 security cameras and devices” around the park including four within (there may be more now).

NYPD trailer
NYPD “trailer” on Washington Sq South

The NYPD “trailer” has, for years, appeared largely nonoperational. It was said to contain video equipment to monitor surveillance cameras but rarely has it been seen in use. In addition, when in use, the video was not live, it was taped and (could be) reviewed later (which would sync up with why no one was ever in there!).

This is quite different from what the NYPD and the New York City Parks Department have planned for the “park house.”

Update: “Trailer” may be operational now and according to one report in real time now. (Not confirmed.)

NYPD WILL BE WATCHING IN REAL TIME — PARKS SURVEILLANCE “CAMERAS AND DEVICES” CONTAIN FACIAL RECOGNITION TECHNOLOGY

It is one thing to have a New York City Police Department presence outside of a city park, another to have them inside a city park, and a relatively small city park. The park itself is already heavily surveilled – which is creepy enough – but soon it will be NYPD watching in real time.

In 2012 at The Guardian, Naomi Wolf wrote in “The new totalitarianism of surveillance technology,” that the cameras at Washington Square Park and other parks were “enabled for facial recognition technology, which allows police to watch video that is tagged to individuals, in real time.”

just some security cameras
just some security cameras

NYPD POSTS ARE RARE IN NEW YORK CITY PARKS

Parks in New York City that have NYPD actual posts within them are rare. Central Park at 843 acres has its own police precinct (also the oldest police precinct in NYC). Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens at one point had its own police patrol but this is also a 1,255 acre park. Prospect Park has an NYPD “Command Center.” The Brooklyn park’s size? 585 acres.

Washington Square Park’s size?

Somewhere around 9.75 acres.

I understand the Bloomberg Administration was always trying to crack down on that free wheelin spirit at the Village park – with its “symmetrical,” overly aligned redesign and every last thing it put into play – but we have a new Mayor now, no?

Schematic of building originally presented
Schematic of building originally presented – minus notes in blue

PLANS NEVER DISCLOSED BY BLOOMBERG ADMIN PARKS OFFICIALS DURING NUMEROUS MEETINGS

The building was obviously designed – from the start – to house the NYPD and yet this (conveniently?) never was disclosed by Parks Department officials. Many meetings occurred during the Bloomberg years at which the proposed building and design were discussed with Parks Department officials coming before Community Board 2 and the Landmarks Preservation Commission to present the plans.

The “park house” building (rumored to cost over $4 million) was part of the Bloomberg Administration’s contentious redesign of Washington Square Park. Construction was finally completed and it opened last year as part of Phase III of the six year long, $37+ million construction project.

WILL THERE BE JAIL-STYLE “HOLDING CELLS” WITHIN?

The person who first informed me about the New York City Police Department presence in the new building – and this source was correct – also asserted that there would be “holding cells” — as in jail cells — within. In fact, it was a question about the holding cells by this blog at the meeting in March 2014 that caused Neilson, who works for the city’s Parks Department, to even mention the “conversations” with NYPD to have space in the structure. At that time, Neilson said she “would be very surprised” if there were cells and sort of laughed it off (but didn’t say no). The location of the NYPD post is supposedly set to be between the women’s and men’s rooms in the center of the building.

CRIME NOT AN ISSUE AT WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK BUT APPARENTLY SURVEILLANCE IS | PLANNED LACK OF TRANSPARENCY

The NYPD has stated that crime is not an issue in Washington Square Park. 

Yes, there have been efforts to curtail marijuana dealers but that does not require an actual NYPD post in the park.

Why didn’t the NYPD attend previous meetings and inform the community about this? Why do they need this? What exactly will they be doing?

Should this not be open for review and discussion instead of hidden for years and then presented as a fait accompli?

According to WSP Adminstrator Neilson, an MOU (memorandum of understanding) is being prepared by the Parks Department for NYPD use of the building. She added, “If you have any questions about [what they will be doing], you will have to ask them.”

with a zillion cables in a tree...
a zillion cables from surveillance cameras in a tree…

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

Washington Square Park’s Long Delayed, Soon-to-Open New Bathroom Building to House the NYPD? March 10, 2014

The NYPD will be watching YOU at Washington Square Park April 5, 2010

nypd_washington_square_south_2Photos: Cathryn

10 thoughts on “NYPD to Surveil Washington Square Park Visitors in Real Time From Within the Park

  1. Before the NYPD trailer there was an NYPD RV parked about ten feet in front of the current trailer. I can recall the RV back as far back as about 1997. It was replaced with the current trailer sometime after 9/11 I think.

    • Thanks, Zach, for some more of the history. It seems this NYPD presence appeared later than first suggested to me but late 90s as you state. Thanks for the info about the RV!

      Cathryn

  2. While WSP is one of the smallest, its also one of the busiest, probably the busiest per acre. The park is an internationally recognized tourist destination. Thus, the safety and convenience of our guests and citizenry is critical to maintain. Cameras are merely a tool and are in use in many other public spaces. I am glad the city is working to protect the success enabled by the multi-million dollar capital investment thought this new resource. Graffiti artists, pick pockets, purse snatchers, drug dealers, and the anti-social will eventually take note.

    • Yes Ray the bastion of success is reliance on Disneyfication for an ideal environment. That really preserves the integrity of the landmark too. Are you still in high school?

  3. “graffiti artists, .. the anti-social will take note”. So, someone who writes in chalk on the paving stones should deservedly be intimidated by the cameras? And anti-social, by whose definition, are to be intimidated? Homeless? Drummers? A pickup band that won’t let you join them? A group of people speaking a language you don’t understand? A political rally?

    Its the softness of explanation by the people who install and operate the cameras which creates such risk. Facial recognition data doesn’t just allow running names against dragnets (itself problematic). It allows, where people gather in groups (such as in parks), for the groups themselves to be analyzed, in realtime. Coupled with individual profile data from facebook, advertiser and other website tracking, etc., it allows unnamed organizations using camera data to identify even casual gatherings of people of like political thought, for example, and potentially monitor them in realtime, even without a human operator having to preapprove the monitoring. This may impinge on rights of free association.

    Its not enough for operators of surveillance systems to make broad statements that they would never do such a thing, or that they abide by general constitutional principles. It is necessary that they be formally constrained from doing the aggregate analysis, in laws, and be auditable through a transparency mechanism which reveals what they (and any parties with access to the data after the fact) have done with the data, or have set up to be capable to do with the data.

    Now that the data extractable from cameras has evolved, cameras in parks present more surveillance issues than just watching for pickpockets.

  4. Thanks everyone for the comments and discussion. It is definitely something that should *be* a discussion or at least not so hidden from … everyone. Ray, I appreciate your viewpoint but I do think the cameras are being used as more than a “tool.” Or they have the potential to be used that way way too easily for the reasons that Kevin so thoughtfully laid out. Thanks, Kevin. Those layers of detail lend even more concern and are important to be aware of. Rebecca, you raise a good point. This seems like something put into play at a certain point … the technology just kept getting * better * (so to speak) and updated and now there is no holding it back – seemingly. The way it was intentionally hidden is alarming to begin with – and the lack of subsequent discussion about it (anywhere).

    Thanks!

    Cathryn

  5. I just found this while searching for police presence in WSP. I must say that I am relieved to hear that this is happening and strongly hoping that it has actually happened by now. As a long term resident in the neighborhood with small children I have become increasingly concerned about the seeming lack of police presence in and around the park in recent months and was attributing it to the heightened sensitivity around the police’s relationship with the public. The park is extremely busy – per acre, as pointed out above, it dwarfs any of the other larger parks – CP, Prospect Park etc. In recent days when I walk through the park in the mornings it is full of homeless sleepers. The number of park “residents” is on the rise and I, for one, would welcome any initiative that continues to keep it clean and family-friendly.

  6. Reality is we do live in an increasingly surveilled environment. Recently we see the positive impact of that technology in catching the the Chelsea bomber, and numerous other instances. NYPD has more recently been doing a really good job of getting the park under control. Community pressure needs to continue to keep this a priority. Surveillance technology is an efficient means for multiplying coverage by a budget starved police department. It is also an aid in both discovery and conviction of crimes. There are likely less cameras in WSP than there is in your local supermarket or CVS. I don’t “like” the idea of being “watched” however if it provides increased safety and quality of life in the park I guess I can accept that as a reasonable tradeoff. Park administration needs to take a far more active role in improving “quality of life” in the park: noise, graffiti, garbage, bikes and skateboards, “resident” camps. Local residents and interested parties should make it a point to be vocal and participatory in community meetings held by CB2 and the 6th Precinct. I hope this blog continues to make prominent notice of those hearing and promote attendance by local residents.

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