What Scranton teaches us about municipal video surveillance

In a very good and fairly detailed recent newspaper article by CitizensVoice.com , the city of Scranton, Penn., caught flack for a municipal video surveillance system that was flawed. I'm not willing to jump on the bandwagon and run the city through...


In a very good and fairly detailed recent newspaper article by CitizensVoice.com, the city of Scranton, Penn., caught flack for a municipal video surveillance system that was flawed. I'm not willing to jump on the bandwagon and run the city through the ringer for a system that is not 100 percent effective. Instead, I want to take you through some of the known facts about the system and offer positive input on good system design. Admittedly, I have not visited the Scranton system, so my comments on this system are general in nature.

Here's the first thing we know about the system...quoted straight from the article:
"The network does not even reliably work. Stormy weather interrupts the wireless system that transmits and receives the live feeds, which leaves one or more of the cameras dead for sometimes a week. This has happened between 12 and 20 times since their installation, or about every other month."

When designing a system that uses wireless technology, you can expect that the environment will impact the network, and every wireless systems integration firm should be expected to conduct a site wireless assessment. Beyond the assessment for wireless, some network designs are more robust than another. For example, a mesh design that offers redundant pathways is naturally more robust than a design that depends upon a single point-to-point link.

One thing also to be considered here is setting up the video surveillance system such that the cameras automatically start recording again after a system disconnect.

Another thing we're told about the wireless system:
"[T]heir locations were partially dictated by where the wireless signal would work."

Admittedly, this sounds something like putting the cart before the horse. The wireless system should be designed to support where the city and police want the cameras. But, the reality is that cities and police don't always have the budget to put together a wireless system that covers every location they need, so inevitably, you design a wireless system that is as good as you can afford, and you make do with the camera locations that are supported by it. Sometimes that means that you can't put cameras in a few locations that were on your initial location list. It's part of being realistic.

What we're told about monitoring station:
"The video streams live onto a large TV screen at police headquarters, where a desk officer sits with his back to it. If somebody is needed to operate the cameras, that task belongs to the desk officer. Otherwise, the network is not monitored. The screen was set up behind the officer because there was nowhere else to put it, Graziano said. ... Though nobody watches the cameras, they are occasionally controlled for real-time surveillance, Graziano said. For example, to watch undercover officers from afar as an operation unfolds, or zoom in on a suspicious person in a car on Lackawanna Avenue."

The location of the monitoring station (located to the operator's back) speaks to the level of priority that video surveillance has for Scranton. Putting a monitor behind a single desk officer (and it sounds like this desk officer is handling other, more priority tasks) says that the city is only partially committed to monitoring of this system. For most cities, 24/7 real-time monitoring isn't practical. What Scranton is doing here isn't totally surprising. In my discussions with cities that have implemented municipal video surveillance city camera systems, there are 4 typical models of monitoring:

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