Municipal surveillance in the spotlight at Secured Cities

City, law enforcement officials gather to discuss industry trends


Among some of Phelps suggestions in creating a CCTV policy that doesn't illicit "Big Brother" fears includes making the policy available to the public, making research findings about the surveillance system available to the public and making the reason for the system's deployment public.

"We've kept that transparent to kind of allay some of those fears," Phelps said.

Phelps also recommends soliciting community involvement, having C-level oversight of the program and including a provision for periodic assessments of the system's performance such as its effect on crime.

Training a better CCTV operator

With advancements in surveillance technology and development of innovations like video analytics, the importance of having a well-trained CCTV operator has been placed on the back burner. However, when it comes to detecting suspicious behavior, there is no replacement for the trained human eye, according to Tomer Benito, deputy director of training for the U.S. Airport and Seaport Police (InterPort Police).

"The most crucial link is the officer behind the screen," he explained.

Benito said that technology advancements have made people lazy because they have a product that can do the work for them. When it comes to viewing surveillance video, he says it's critical to have someone that can process that information correctly.

"We are fighting people, we are fighting the human element and you can only fight it with a human," he said.

To stop a terrorist, Benito said you have to think like a terrorist and that CCTV operators have to learn to look out for the same things they do such as the vulnerability of a potential target.

"Once you become the aggressor you know what to look for," Benito said.

Benito added that CCTV operators should also learn to use short and clear communications, not numbers or codes, as people at the scene can become quickly overwhelmed with what's going on around them.

While it may not always be as popular as buying the latest and greatest security technology, spending money to have properly trained CCTV operators could be a surveillance program's best investment.

"At the end of the day that is what counts," Benito said. "People don't want to invest in the human element."

Legal concerns for surveillance programs

As with any surveillance project that involves monitoring public spaces, there will inevitably be those that raise legal challenges to such systems, but there are step that cities can take to reduce their liability and address privacy concerns.

According to Alan F. Wohlstetter, an attorney with the law firm of Fox Rothchild LLP, there are five key things that cities wanting to implement surveillance systems should do and they include; having leadership that can promote the benefits of having a surveillance network; creating a legal structure that can address the public's concerns and involve the private sector to limit the city's liability; establishing a separate entity that can control the system; creating a financial model that leverages public-private partnerships; and adopting written policies that address various concerns from the public.

Of these aforementioned principles, Wohlstetter said that many cities will find that creating a separate entity will be immensely beneficial to them. Not only will it help to limit a city's liability, but it will also aid in the procurement process, according to Wohlstetter, who helped the city of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. establish a non-profit organization to run its surveillance program.
"You're in a different world," Wohlstetter said. "It makes it so you're not tied up in toilet paper going through the process."

Relinquishing that monitoring authority can prove difficult for many police departments though.

"What I say to police departments is you've got to let go," he explained.

Leveraging public-private partnerships will also help alleviate the financial burden of a surveillance system on a city as it will require businesses to share in the cost for the increased level of public safety.

Finding funding

As cities across the country have been forced to slash their budgets due to the poor economy, there is also much less money available for surveillance projects. Even once abundant grant funds are becoming more difficult to come by during these tough economic times. Fortunately, however, there are some creative ways that municipalities are finding the necessary funding for these projects.