With 1,100 security cameras, Syracuse University is one of the most watched campuses in the country

In the bowels of the Department of Public Safety’s offices in Sims Hall, eight 65-inch flat screen televisions are mounted against a wall. One tracks the different cars out, one tracks information from the LiveSafe application, one tracks calls, one watches the entrance to DPS’ offices and another is typically tuned to CNN. Two dispatchers sit at computer stations with several screens of their own.

Another screen is split four ways. In the DPS communications center, that screen shows four different areas on campus, monitored by four of the 1,100 surveillance cameras Syracuse deploys.

SU started implementing cameras in 2009. By 2012, it had built a network of 500 cameras. In the last four and a half years, the university added another 600.

“It’s a pretty extensive camera system that we have here on campus,” said Bobby Maldonado, SU’s chief of public safety. “… I suspect there aren’t a lot of schools that have in excess of 1,000 cameras.” 

Campus surveillance has become a norm as the technology has become more affordable and security has become a focus after the 2007 school shooting at Virginia Tech. The Daily Orange surveyed the U.S. News and World Report’s top 100 national universities — Syracuse ranks 60th — for the number of cameras each has. The 38 that responded average 935.5 total cameras, 7.49 per 10 acres and 4.13 per 100 students. Institutions, including SU, have added layers that they suggest will prevent crimes and help solve them, though peer-reviewed research suggests otherwise.

SU has become one of the most monitored universities among those that responded to The Daily Orange’s requests for data. The university has the 10th most cameras per student and was one of 14 schools that have 1,000 or more surveillance cameras.

“I think they coincide with the same rise in the use of them in society at large, although I think campuses had tended to be a little bit more off-limits,” said William Staples, the founding director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center at the University of Kansas. “… I think there’s always been a little bit of a sense of college campuses as being sacrosanct, special. They’re a tight community, and we don’t need those type of tactics. But I think that’s changing.”

SU had siloed camera systems before installing a centralized system in 2009. Each school within the university could buy its own cameras and put them up for security purposes. Only some had real-time capability while others created VHS tapes or DVDs. The schools maintained the cameras and the university lacked a universal policy governing them.

In 2005, discussion started between the Department of Public Safety and administration to centralize and upgrade the security system. SU overhauled its IT network, allowing the cameras to mesh with new technology. Several committees, with members from various non-academic departments, analyzed how to put cameras in.

Tony Callisto, SU’s public safety chief from 2006-2015 and current chief law enforcement officer, was not made available for comment on this story.

According to a report written by one of the committees, SU used peer institutions as benchmarks for camera totals. SU reviewed eight other institutions’ camera totals from the mid-2000s, including the Rochester Institute of Technology (80), the University of Rochester (160), Case Western Reserve (388), Drexel (265), Northwestern (35), Brown (185), New York University (1,500) and the University of Pennsylvania (300). Former Campus Planning, Design and Construction director Eric Beattie said SU didn’t have to rewire many buildings to accommodate the new technology.

Some schools only having a one-time budget to buy cameras spurred SU’s efforts to centralize them. Centralizing them institutionalized their importance and made them easier to govern, said Jenny Gluck, who served on two committees that considered the implementation of cameras and is an associate chief information officer of academic services.

“If you don’t have an institutional budget to maintain them and keep them updated, then you can’t use them,” Gluck said.

Outside firms held focus groups and assessed the school’s security, ultimately recommending the installation of a centralized security camera system.

Students generally responded that they would like implementing cameras because it made them feel safe, Gluck said. Some who participated said they’d seen cameras in their high schools and had become used to them.

A committee determined a phase-in process would be best, given that a security system would be expensive to install at once. The same committee developed a 15-part priority list with the first part being residence halls. It took two years, between 2007 and 2009, before the university installed its first 168 cameras at the entrances to each residence hall and in Hinds Hall. SU installed another 332 in the following three years. The committees also determined the camera system would need to feed to the DPS communications center.

In 2007, while the project was being researched, DPS Technology and Security Services Manager Michael Kearns told The Daily Orange that SU would need more than 1,000 cameras to cover the campus. SU had broken ground on three buildings at the time — the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center, the Center of Excellence and the Life Sciences Complex. It has built or purchased eight buildings since, including Ernie Davis Hall, Dineen Hall and the Ensley Athletic Center.

SU has exceeded Kearns’ prior threshold. Its current total gives it the third most cameras per student among SU and its five peer institutions that responded to The Daily Orange’s request for data. The two peer institutions ahead of Syracuse — Vanderbilt and Marquette — rank first and sixth in cameras per student among the 38 schools that gave data to The Daily Orange.

There are cameras in public spaces, with some capturing off-campus activity. Maldonado said SU placed cameras on the roof of Ernie Davis Hall and the Sheraton Syracuse University Hotel and Conference Center. No one actively monitors the cameras, Maldonado said. SU has no cameras on floors of residence halls or in private areas, such as bathrooms or locker rooms. He said he’s comfortable with the amount of coverage the campus currently has, but also said, “We could always use more cameras.”

Maldonado and Oakland University professor Thomas Lauer say schools upped security after the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007. A lone gunman killed 33 people, including himself, in the attack. In the aftermath, schools added card access, improved public safety departments and added cameras.

“People perceive (cameras), and certainly people in charge of college campuses, as something that can be done,” Staples, the Kansas professor, said. “It’s like, ‘Well, what can we do? We can put up cameras.’ And they do that because it’s a concrete type of thing.”

Staples and Lauer say no scholarly evidence supports the conclusion that cameras prevent crime. In September 2016, Lauer and two other Oakland University professors published a report in the Criminal Justice Policy Review that, based on data from a sample of 336 U.S. universities, concluded security cameras had little to no effect on violent or property crime on campuses.

At the end of an interview, Gluck pulled a Panasonic camera with a gray, boxy body and a small black camera head from a shelf in her office. Cameras like the one she pulled from the shelf are from before SU upgraded its system. Some still record, but others don’t.

“In general we leave them up because it’s still a deterrent,” she said.