STE Security Innovation Awards Bronze Medal: Busting the Bandwidth Bind

With nearly four million residents and a steady stream of tourists to protect, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) faces countless security challenges on any given day. The LAPD’s Major Crimes Division, Technical Support Unit (Tech Squad) is tasked with a myriad of duties, ranging from providing situational awareness video for major events like the Emmys, Grammys and Lakers and Kings victory parades, to gathering intelligence for classified investigations and securing city-wide protests.

With L.A. hosting some of the entertainment and sports industries’ most high-profile events, the Unit plays an integral role in ensuring the safety of those involved by providing situational awareness through video. The Unit may also be asked to provide video at a moment’s notice on criminal cases involving homicides or other exigent matters.

We encounter many unique challenges and rely heavily on the best in IP video surveillance running on a wireless mesh network to protect the people, our officers and the city of L.A.

The Counter Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau previously used an analog system, which was cumbersome and limiting. Investigators wanted IP video, which would enable them to view video at their desks over the network rather than sit in a car with a microwave receiver. And of course, the video would be in high-definition. Cameras from three separate vendors proved unreliable during testing. Fortunately, IP video quality, reliability and functionality were met when we selected cameras from Axis Communications. The Tech Squad has deployed IP cameras from Axis for use throughout the city, including PTZ functionality and fixed video for covert applications.

With this system, personnel resources are not expended on determining situational awareness, but can focus instead on the direct mission at hand while the video network does its job. Video can also be used in place of live officers to gather intelligence in overt or dangerous situations.    


Managing Cellular Bandwidth: How to Create a Working Solution

In 2009 and 2010, the Unit attempted to provide situational awareness video for the Los Angeles Lakers NBA championship victory parade. The video was powered over existing cellular networks within Metro L.A. In 2009, the Tech Squad found that the hundreds of thousands of spectators who jammed the parade route were also jamming the cellular network. The cameras installed along the parade route were slowed to a frame rate that was akin to watching grass grow, making the video feeds basically useless due to the massive network saturation.

A new way to circumvent this problem was needed for the good of the city and our officers. 

In early 2009, two Tech Squad members attended a lengthy electronics course sponsored by the U.S. Navy’s Special Operations Command in Virginia Beach, Va., where they were exposed to some of the latest technologies in surveillance, video and communications. One of those technologies was a system of IP radios that established a mesh network that would stream data throughout an area over a singular, independent system.

The Navy’s Special Ops Command endorsed this particular system, made by Cobham of the U.K., as the most dependable it had tested. When the Tech Squad members returned from the training, they immediately pushed the acquisition of the system to the Department, but were met with multiple roadblocks: the most sizable being that an effective system costs more than $150,000.

Additional means of circumventing the bandwidth issue of the cellular network were explored, such as acquiring new HDTV-quality PTZ cameras in the hope that the H.264 compression technology would reduce the strain on the cellular network by requiring less bandwidth. The Unit found that the cameras alone were not enough to overcome the clutter over the cellular network at larger events. 

We attempted to find funding for the Cobham equipment through grants and donations from charitable police foundations. At the 2010 Academy Awards, Cobham provided demo equipment for the mesh network, which was installed in the Hollywood area. Results with the Axis cameras were excellent and cemented the need for this equipment. 

Our supervisors began the tedious process of applying for grant monies from the Department of Homeland Security. In the early spring of 2010, the Unit was approved for the expenditure of said grant monies for the equipment, thanks in large part to the Academy Awards success and the need to supply quality video in similar large-scale situations.

That summer, the Los Angeles Lakers again won the NBA Championship and a victory parade was organized. We were asked to provide cameras based on the same ineffective cellular system from 2009 and knew that failure would be imminent; nevertheless, several cameras were installed along the parade route and, throughout the time leading up to the parade, worked satisfactorily. However, as anticipated, on the day of the parade, the cameras could only deliver a frame or two of video every 30 seconds because of the choked cellular network.

Command Post staff demanded to know what the problems were. After explaining the situation, we quickly gained departmental support for the acquisition of the mesh networking equipment, as everyone was desperate for a dependable, quality solution that would serve the city of Los Angeles effectively during these types of events. 

Even after receiving approval, the convoluted process through which grant money is spent almost caused us to lose our acquisition of the radio gear several times throughout the next year. Luckily, our supervision was in close contact with Cobham and other entities involved in the process and our luck held. A local Cobham vendor, Special Services Group, out of Central California, was instrumental in expediting the entire process and the equipment was eventually shipped in March 2011.

The IP radios were put to work immediately alongside the 720p and 1080p HDTV-quality AXIS P5534-E and AXIS Q6035-E PTZ Dome Network Cameras. Six of the 10 IP radios were mounted in powered L-Com NEMA rated weatherproof enclosures along with the Axis cameras. After learning the system the radios operated in, I was able to set up the network very quickly and with good results.


May Day Provides First Test, Royal Visit Seals the Deal

Our first deployment of the new mesh-based surveillance system was for the May Day rallies in 2011, which called for immigration reform and workers’ rights. The cameras were installed in the downtown area close to our headquarters, and everything worked very well, as physical distances between the radios were close.

Later that summer, we deployed the system for the visit of the Royal Couple, Prince William and Kate Middleton, and had some serious distance to cover without line of sight from the camera/radio locations back to our command post on the other side of downtown. The Tech Squad decided to mount one of the radios on the roof of the US Bank Tower (the tallest building west of the Mississippi River) to serve as a relay or hop site between the cameras/radios at the venues and our receive site at the command post. US Bank Tower officials gave us the green light for the install and the results were perfect—the tower’s support is still integral to the program today.

I personally took an additional IP radio and powered that unit in my car and drove to Signal Hill, Calif. — about 20 miles west of downtown L.A. — with good line of sight to the tower. I was actually able to acquire the network and the cameras around the venues for the Royal Visit at that distance. 

Because of the installation support from US Bank and the mesh rollout with Cobham, we have been off and running with the system, deploying it at numerous events with positive results — including the visit of the Chinese Vice President, May Day 2012, the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2012 and subsequent victory parade for the L.A. Kings.

In maybe the most high-level deployment, the system was used to cover the perimeter of the Occupy L.A. encampment. As the protest began to wind down, one of the cameras captured a truck dropping off 30 to 40 sticks which could be used as long clubs. We knew that this potential weapon, if used against the officers, could have potentially escalated an already emotionally charged situation. Based on the video, several officers were dispatched and retrieved the majority of the sticks before they made it into the camp.


Perfecting a Futuristic System

We have stretched the range and tried several experiments with the radios/cameras. Each time, Axis and Cobham have both been extremely supportive and willing to assist at any and all hours. Steve Smith, regional sales manager from Axis, and Joseph Bonafede of Cobham have been literal lifesavers, providing not-easily-obtainable equipment and dedicated support in the deployment of the system.

Specifically, in April 2012, as the Unit prepared for May Day, two of the Axis cameras ‘burned out’ due to installation mistakes in wet weather. We contacted Smith and within two hours he provided two equivalent replacement cameras that were immediately plugged in to the system and worked flawlessly. Bonafede also assisted us numerous times with telephone and personal technical support despite being on the east coast. 

As the Tech Squad moves into 2013, the acquisition of more powerful, later-generation Cobham radio equipment is in the works. A stronger, dedicated “Infrastructure Radio” will be purchased that will serve to relay video more effectively from the cameras/radios to the command post at future events and viewed using the Axis Camera Station software. In addition, the IP radios’ ease of use has made it possible to inject an internet backhaul into the system to provide remote access over IP to the camera system.

Using portable Cradlepoint routing technology, it has been possible to introduce Sprint and Verizon Broadband data cards (USB Modems) with 4G technology into the system at any given point. The router/modem simply plugs into the network via RJ45 connection and is mounted in the same weatherproof enclosure.  After the cameras are port forwarded over the router, remote access over 4G LTE is a snap and increases the flexibility of the system.

In just three years, the Tech Squad has gone from microwave receivers in cars to a quickly deployable wireless video surveillance system. Before, the Tech Squad provided slow and unreliable video from one or two cellular-equipped cameras and was unable to contribute much; oftentimes placed at a corner table with a single laptop. Now, the unit’s video is center stage — projected on multiple big screens at command posts with department command staff relying heavily on the feeds for real-time situational awareness, crowd management and decision making. 

Despite all our success, the LAPD is still under large budgetary constraints, and procuring new technology is anything but simple. We are regularly tasked with fabricating support equipment, developing new system parameters and “throwing the switch” on new ideas entirely on our own. For example, the mounting systems for all the equipment mentioned here were developed entirely by the Unit, including installing the IP radios in bare enclosures along with bulkhead connectors and other “in-box” mounts for data and power, as well as developing, welding and fabricating mounts that allow the equipment to be installed on the sides of buildings.

The LAPD Major Crimes Division Technical Support Unit is in the unique position of making significant contributions to the Department and the city in terms of enhancing public safety through technology. The mobility of the entire system allows it to be installed virtually anywhere the crowd and security issues may arise. The Unit has also cemented its importance and relevance within the LAPD with its successful implementation of technology and we hope to continue to grow and improve the video surveillance and wireless mesh network system.


Richard Cowgill has been with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Technical Support Unit (Tech Squad) since 1990. He is tasked with utilizing the latest technologies to assist investigators with suspect apprehension and case clearance, while also providing situational awareness through technology for high-profile events in the city. Mr. Cowgill has a bachelor’s degree from UCLA. The primary objective of the LAPD Major Crimes Division is the prevention of significant disruptions of public order in the City of Los Angeles. Captain Steven S. Sambar is its Commanding Officer.