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 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:

  • No active monitoring: They don't have the budget to monitor the cameras around-the-clock, and they recognize that and design the system to be a record-only type of system.
  • Special event monitoring only: This is a fairly common usage. The police will only monitor the video feeds during special instances, like a drug raid, a hostage situation, or a special request from patrol officers.
  • Selective real-time monitoring: For cities that have the budget and personnel to do monitoring, many will set up real-time monitoring only of specific cameras or camera groups. Think of this as focusing the eyes on the cameras that tend to capture the most crimes.
  • Full-system real-time monitoring: This is probably the rarest of all monitoring models. It's expensive and is a shotgun approach to monitoring. Some municipalities do, however, bring all the feeds into a central point and provide around-the-clock monitoring. Other municipalities that do real-time monitoring sometimes will distribute the cameras to specific locations, wherein each police substation might monitor the cameras in its district.

Here are the details on recording:
"Because the system has limited storage, the footage saves for about two weeks before it records over itself."

This is pretty standard. Some cities effectively use municipal video surveillance and only archive the footage for 7 days. Others archive for 1 month -- and all manner of lengths of time in between. Two weeks sounds reasonable and appropriate. The key is that if you need video, you need to put in your requests early. Especially in lengthy investigations, don't wait until the end of the 6-month investigation to request supporting video captured by street cameras.

Some details on funding:
"To pay for the system, Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty used money from a state energy-savings rebate. In 2006, officials said they planned to expand the network after the first cameras, but never did. Lack of money was the reason, Capt. Graziano said."

This is fairly common. An initial grant funds the project and then cities struggle to find continued funds. Some cities can't even find the budget to support their initial deployments of cameras, let alone finding new money to add more cameras. The article says the city wants to expand beyond the current 12-camera system and move to continuous monitoring. These are lofty goals, and it means heavy fundraising to get a budget to support these projects.

And a note about future plans:
"Duffy said he is researching whether the city could partner with businesses to incorporate their cameras into the police network, an idea which Doherty said he supports."

This is a great idea, and one that community safety organizations like the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District have done successfully. But for a city that is currently struggling with technical operations of keeping cameras recording and keeping the wireless network running, it might be a bit premature to add the technical load of other cameras.

Their summary on the project:
"Doherty said the cameras were worth it, and the city has learned from its introduction to police surveillance. But the mayor also admits the network is not the crime-fighting tool he hoped it would be."

Cameras don't fight crimes; citizens and police officers fight crime. While cameras can be a deterrent in some cases, it's unrealistic to expect cameras to stop crime. Proactive monitoring and proactive use of the recorded video to aid in prosecutions can make the camera system more useful as a crime-fighting tool to aid officers.

In summary, it sounds like Scranton has made some common mistakes but generally is on the right path. Going from a department that doesn't use public video cameras to one that has that capability isn't a simple jump. Processes have to change in order to make the availability of video more applicable to your public safety officers. Creating a consistent system is a big step. If officers are commonly being told, "Sorry, a technical glitch means that video isn't available", they will likely stop requesting video or attempt to rely on the system. Create a consistent system that is up 99% of the time or better, and the department should find that officers can rely upon it for added value in their investigations.

Finally, if this discussion is of interest to you, you should plan on attending Secured Cities 2011, which will be held this May 2011 in Atlanta, Ga. It's a conference designed for police departments, city managers and mayors, municipal IT administrators and systems integrators – with the goal of sharing information about working approaches to municipal video surveillance/city camera systems. We'll be discussing city policies, technical system designs, funding, approaches to monitoring and more. Dates and details will be announced shortly, but you can visit the event's website to join the mailing list, or email me at gskohl@securedcities.com to learn more about this upcoming educational conference on urban video initiatives.