Security cameras meant to fight crime on Metro may not be doing the job. Our FOX 5 investigation found cameras on buses and in stations broken for months and even years without being fixed. We looked at a one month snapshot of Metro's maintenance records for its surveillance cameras and discovered hundreds of cameras in need of repair.
These cameras are positioned inside most Metro buses and at Metro rail stations, and record non-stop to a digital video recorder.
"I think the pedestrians or the riders are comforted just to see them. It's like Big Brother watching over your shoulder," said Tyrone Henson, a Metro rider.
The security or surveillance cameras are different from bus drive cams, which only record when triggered by sudden movement or by a driver. The drive cams are extremely reliable and have few failures.
The surveillance cameras are much less reliable. Some passengers feel that makes the transit system unsafe.
"The buses and trains, they're just not secure. The children are getting robbed on them. My daughter was robbed on the Metro," said a woman who identified herself as Marie.
Bus drivers have been assaulted too.
"I've been spit on, punched ... I've had things thrown at you," said Gerry Garnett, who is also a union representative for bus drivers.
Safety is a major concern for the union, which represents much of Metro's workforce. ATU Local 689 President Jackie Jeter worries about the risks if workers can't count on the surveillance cameras working.
"It's very dangerous because the assaults have become more vicious," said Jeter.
Maintenance records from Metro show many cameras are failing. During a one-month period, records show surveillance cameras on more than 15 percent of buses didn't work. Nearly half those were buses from the Bladensburg and Four Mile Run bus yards.
"They're at their own risk. They don't know whether the equipment that's supposed to be there to protect them is actually working," Jeter said.
In one case back in October, a passenger stabbed a bus driver. The camera that was supposed to be rolling failed to record anything.
"That's not something I can tell an operator. And they come to me and tell me about an assault that's taken place. That's not an excuse I can give them," Jeter said.
Montgomery County Police eventually made an arrest in the stabbing, but without any video evidence.
More often than not, if a crime happens, the transit union claims there is a problem with the camera. Metro denies that is the case, and believes it is more likely the bus didn't have a DVR camera in the first place. About a third of buses still do not have security cameras that operate non-stop.
When her teenage son was attacked, Martha Smith found out there was no video.
"He got beat up when three boys jumped him on the bus, took his coat and the camera didn't work," she told FOX 5.
At the same time, dozens of cameras were out at rail stations. Some haven't worked for a long time. One camera that wouldn't pan or tilt hasn't been repaired in more than two years. Another one painted over by vandals had been out more than six months.
"That's really unacceptable. I don't know exactly what the excuse or reason is. That's unacceptable," Jeter said.
Metro Transit Police admit some cameras don't work, but the agency has thousands of cameras throughout its entire bus and rail system.
"We would love to have every camera functioning, but a lot of those cameras are repeat coverage areas," said Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn.
That camera, which was painted over, was repeatedly vandalized, according to Metro. So it is looking for a new location, which is why it hasn't been fixed.
Police say multiple cameras mounted in stations and on more than 1,100 buses often cover the same areas. If one goes out, another camera can still pick anything up. Because of that, the police chief says the broken cameras are not a threat to public safety.
"We feel confident, we capture pretty much everything that goes on in the system," he said.
Taborn says police often rely on eyewitnesses and evidence collected at a crime scene to solve crimes. Although it doesn't hurt to have surveillance video, it is not a hindrance, he says.
The security cameras have proven quite effective when working. Three months ago, when two men shot a 22-year-old passenger on a bus leaving him for dead, video onboard helped police track down the suspected killers.
"Cameras, they're a good investigatory tool after the fact. Sometimes they're functioning and sometimes they're not. But we don't solely depend on the camera to find out what went on," Taborn noted.
According to Metro, at least 75 cameras on buses keep breaking down month after month and many of those simply can't be fixed.
"That's not sufficient. It just doesn't cut the mustard anymore," complained Jeter, the transit union president.
There is a reason for that Metro says.
"They could very well be some of those cameras that have older systems," Taborn told FOX 5.
Many of those cameras were installed more than 10 years ago, use older technology and have simply worn out over time.
The transit agency says it has far more security cameras than other similar sized transit systems in the country. It plans to have surveillance cameras on all buses in the next six months. Old cameras that chronically fail will also be replaced, which should improve overall camera reliability.
"We're paying to ride in the system and we're not getting the value of what we're paying for, and we're putting our lives in danger," said Marie.
If you look back ten years ago, Metro didn't have cameras on buses and the ones in rail stations didn't record. That all changed in 2001 when transit police officer Marlon Morales was gunned down and killed inside the U-Street Cardoza station. There were cameras but they didn't record. It was something inexpensive to fix. All riders ask now is that today's cameras don't fail them.
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