Eye on Crime

When the Tampa, Fla.’s Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) says that it prides itself on serving, protecting and defending our community, we truly mean it.

We are one of less than 20 public safety agencies in the nation to have attained law enforcement, jail and medical accreditation, earning the coveted “Triple Crown” of law enforcement certification.

We strive to stay on the forefront of law enforcement trends to keep our community safe; however, in the last few years, we have faced a challenge similar to many other cities and counties across the nation — a struggling economy. While our population continues to grow, the number of deputies on the street has remained consistent due in part to government budget and resource constraints. Currently, there are only 1.6 deputies per 1,000 residents in Hillsborough County, significantly lower than the national average for law enforcement agencies of 2.5 officers per capita.

We don’t let those numbers hold us back. It just means our Sheriff’s Office must work smarter to reduce crime. That is the mindset that motivated us to create the HCSO “Eye on Crime” Project.

The Eye on Crime Project led us to redefine how we battle crime, from being less reactive to being more proactive. The project planning included an idea to provide a visible, identifiable deterrent to crime while, at the same time, creating a viable solution to offer additional safety and security for the community. A goal of the project was to create a more innovative, cost-effective and efficient way to support our law enforcement personnel.

After some preliminary research on other surveillance systems in the country, we were impressed with the security model in the city of Chicago that had been featured in several magazines and on various news outlets. This is a city surveillance system based heavily on network video surveillance, with a combination of IP cameras and encoded analog cameras. Our initial concern was that implementing such a solution would be prohibited by our budget; but, after visiting the Chicago site first-hand, we knew we had to make this state-of-the-art system work for us.

While we had a strong idea of what we wanted to take away from Chicago’s city surveillance model, we didn’t want to make any rash decisions — this surveillance system had to specifically meet HCSO’s goals.

IP Investment

After receiving a $1 million grant from the United States Department of Justice, we drafted an initial proposal that included several tips that were passed along from our colleagues in Chicago. The one major difference between the HCSO system and Chicago’s is that we chose to go all-IP (i.e. no encoded analog cameras). This was a recommendation from our Chicago colleagues not only so that our cameras would produce far better image quality, but also to future-proof the system and provide a repeatable process for installation and internal training.

Once the research phase was complete, a Request for Proposal was ultimately awarded to SiteSecure Inc., a security integration, construction and engineering firm, as the prime contractor. SiteSecure then began a multi-year “design-build” process to further evaluate our surveillance options and begin implementation.

From the beginning, we knew that we wanted the highest quality of technology to give our county and residents the most return for the investment. That meant IP cameras with no less than 720p HDTV images connected to a hybrid wireless infrastructure would need to be installed.

For the initial phase, we deployed 20 IP cameras from Axis Communications in May 2010. The cameras communicate via a wireless infrastructure network that is a mix of Firetide and Motorola products. We hit a few unexpected logistical bumps with the initial install when additional permits for erecting new poles and running power for the technology had to be obtained; however, the end-results made these early challenges well worth it.

The entire surveillance system is managed by the Genetec Omnicast video management system (VMS), which is intuitive and intelligent. Ninety-five percent of our video use is initiated after-the-fact in forensic searches, and the Omnicast system makes finding specific archived footage an easy process. While we enable continuous recording, we do use motion detection to boost image resolution and frame rate, depending on the location and time. Multi-casting is configured to help manage overall bandwidth.

We have fully redundant storage in our own data centers using Pivot3 CloudBanks instead of having multiple DVRs sitting in dusty, hot closets throughout the agency. General policy dictates that video is saved for 30 days, but video files can be flagged to be retained longer if needed for an investigation...which was the case in our very first hour using the cameras.

 

Immediate Success

The Eye on Crime cameras were all linked so they could be remotely operated by our deputies at the Patrol District headquarters, enabling them to keep an eye on trouble spots, monitor streets for emergency situations and give residents a better feeling of safety. The cameras have pan/tilt/zoom performance and can monitor a 360-degree field of view. In addition, deputies are able to access the camera feeds from virtually anywhere via our IP network, allowing multiple cameras to be monitored simultaneously.

A great deal of thought went into the locations of the cameras by our team and SiteSecure; and we were rewarded for our efforts the very first day that the system went live.

As we turned on the first camera to test the point-to-point wireless link and measure bandwidth usage, one of the department’s detectives was on-site to check out the system. His keen eye spotted some kids loitering by a dumpster and he asked our operator, “How far can these cameras zoom in?” Without much hesitation, the detective took hold of the controls and confirmed his suspicion that a narcotics deal was going on right in the camera’s view. Within minutes, the department rolled an unmarked car to the scene and thwarted not only the drug deal, but caught a person with additional warrants out for his arrest. The video was even able to be used later for forensic evidence.

Within the first hour of hitting the ‘On’ switch, the cameras had already made our streets safer.

“Within days of installing the cameras, the crime rate began to drop in the three-mile area. We saw that as success from day one,” HCSO Major J.R. Burton told a local news program. “It’s not Big Brother watching. I see it as an investigative tool.”

The Eye on Crime camera project continues to be a major success thanks to open communication with the neighborhood residents, the versatility of IP technology and proper planning. From these great results, we knew that the rest of our county would benefit from IP surveillance.

 

Success Breeds More Success

Shortly after we planned the Eye on Crime project, we were faced with another interesting situation: the HCSO Information Services Bureau (ISD) inherited responsibility for the electronic security and surveillance systems at the county’s two jails, as well as the surveillance deployed at several other buildings around the county. Being a techno-savvy group, we immediately determined a need for a major systems upgrade. While researching our options, I quickly realized that we had already found a comprehensive, reliable system for Eye on Crime. Why not replicate the success for the rest of the agency?

These two success stories started a huge spiral of new surveillance technology implementation. From the 20 cameras we initially determined for community surveillance, another 330-plus cameras were installed in areas such as the courthouse, district offices, vehicle storage lots, interview rooms (with audio), the aviation facility, main operations center and warehouse facilities. These cameras can all be accessed from a central station for viewing and video storage and are controlled by Omnicast.

One common complaint of large surveillance systems is keeping track of all the different camera feeds. This is not only an important feature to enable operators to identify precisely where a potential crime or safety hazard is taking place, but also for routine and corrective maintenance. Our old analog systems used as many as 15 different camera models/manufacturers, teaching us that a standard and intuitive camera naming convention with a system map should be created so all users could easily and immediately identify specific cameras. Our operators and technicians were thrilled with this step because it eliminated much of the time spent searching for a failed device — in one instance we had technicians spend almost two hours trying to locate the camera that they needed to support.

 

Surveillance Sparks Record Crime Rate Decrease

The thwarted drug deal on the first day was only one of the hundreds of incidents that we have managed to solve or deter in the year that the cameras have been operational. One of highest-profile incidents happened recently when a cat burglar that the county had been chasing for more than three years was apprehended after the IP cameras caught video footage of him crawling through a window of a targeted home.

Not only has crime decreased for the fourth straight year thanks to the hard work of our law enforcement teams, but with the added benefit of the surveillance system, our crime rate is reaching record lows. Specifically, in 2010, the total number of crimes when compared to 2009 was reduced by 16.2 percent, and compared to 2008, the reduction is even greater, at 25 percent. The county has so many examples of criminals caught in the act that we have developed a YouTube page (www.youtube.com/hcsovideo) to allow residents, town officials and anyone else to view the camera footage first-hand and help bring law breakers to justice.

Getting the community involved by using social media and video to keep residents informed and make them an intricate part of community safety is one step we made to ensure our citizens felt comfortable with the cameras. In order to manage possible hesitations of residents who might challenge the project, we ensured that the cameras would only monitor public areas. We also made the decision that the cameras would not be a secret, which is called an overt system.

Additionally, the specific grant we were awarded required us to conduct community meetings to announce and describe the project before the first camera was activated. During that time, residents could ask questions, check out the camera locations and learn how their quality of life could be improved with technology.

 

Continuing Innovation for the Future

Since the day we began installing the IP surveillance system, we have never looked back. With more than 350 cameras currently operating in the project, we have plans to increase that number to more than 700 IP cameras by the end of next year and more than 1,000 cameras in the year following as we connect with other county buildings and public areas. By the time all of our old analog technology is replaced throughout the county with one IP-based connected system, we expect to have approximately 2,000 cameras in place.

Our experience has been so successful that we have quickly become a model community for others who are eager to begin implementing similar systems. As we did with Chicago, we now have law enforcement and government personnel from across the nation visiting Hillsborough County to ask for advice on how to emulate our county surveillance system. By being able to share our experience with other agencies, we can help crime rates and surveillance strategies improve across the nation.

 

Craig McEntyre is Manager of the Business Support Bureau for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO). The Security Innovation Award is an annual competition held by STE magazine. The winning projects are chosen by a panel of security industry experts. For more details or to learn about entering next year’s competition, contact editor Steve Lasky at steve.lasky@cygnus.com.

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