US Park Police leverage video surveillance for large-scale events

Though they may be the oldest uniformed police agency in the nation, the U.S. Park Police are the on the cutting edge when it comes to utilizing video surveillance technology.

At a presentation during last week’s Secured Cities conference in Baltimore, officials with the Park Police discussed how they are deploying security cameras at large scale events and the steps they’ve taken to share video with not only other law enforcement agencies, but other stakeholders.

According to Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers, the park police have become the agency that handles the most First Amendment issues and the use of surveillance technology to keep demonstrators safe has become paramount.

"They are an absolute must for us," she told attendees. "It’s our job to keep that venue safe for them."

Capt. Charles Guddemi with the Park Police’s Special Forces District said that surveillance cameras help the agency with many of its operational concerns for special events which include life safety, situational awareness, resource protection, crowd control, and the detection and mitigation of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents. The agency also provides protection to the president, vice president and foreign dignitaries.

Initially, according to Park Police Capt. David Mulholland, the agency started out using cameras that were owned by other law enforcement entities to learn how they were utilizing video. Mulholland said that one of the biggest challenges they had to deal with was inadequate infrastructure to accommodate cameras at many of the venues the agency is responsible for securing such as the National Mall.

During four large events in 2010, Mulholland said that cellular-based cameras failed at each one. While cellular-based surveillance cameras may serve as a good backup, Mulholland said that they fail many times due to congestion on the cellular network or because of unplanned incidents. One such incident happened as they were preparing for last year’s Restoring Honor rally in which a construction worker accidentally knocked out communications at a nearby cell tower.

"That pushed us to a place where we said we have to find a better way to do this," Mulholland said.

The agency now takes a layered approach to ensuring the integrity of its surveillance feeds, which includes using cameras connected to multiple communication paths including mesh networks, the public safety radio spectrum known as D Block, existing local networks, as well as cellular-based systems. Mulholland said that they can also tie all of these cameras together into one system for remote viewing. The agency has also begun to enhance its surveillance cameras by leveraging video analytics and PSIM solutions.

In addition, the Park Police have taken an even bolder step to share video not only with other agencies on the ground that need to see the feeds, such as the FBI and Secret Service, but also other that "may" need to see, which can include organizations like the American Red Cross and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"We thought outside the box," he said.

To deal with potential interagency problems related to this sharing initiative, Mulholland said they wrote into their policy that 1) the video could only be received in an official government facility, 2) the video couldn’t be recorded, 3) the video could not be redistributed, and 4) the video feed may cut.

There were also video dissemination concerns related to sharing video with interested parties such as video degradation. To address this, the Park Police turned to datacasting as a solution, which utilizes television broadcasting bandwidth and allows the agency to control all video feeds.

While many people talk about how they would like to share video, Mulholland said what the Park Police has done with its surveillance capabilities should serve as an example.

"Be bold, stop talking about it and do it," he said.