Surveillance systems transform security landscape for cities

Panelists discuss the impact of municipal surveillance networks at Secured Cities conference


City leaders, law enforcement authorities, equipment manufacturers and systems integrators gathered this week for the Secured Cities conference in Atlanta. The conference, which is in its first year, provided attendees with an opportunity to learn about some of the biggest challenges and best practices associated with implementing citywide surveillance systems such as finding the necessary funding, infrastructure requirements and legal issues.

Defining a strategy

Sgt. Patrick O'Donnell, program manager for the Chicago Police Department's POD (police observation device) initiative discussed how the city manages its robust surveillance network called Operation Virtual Shield. Through the Chicago Office of Emergency Communications (OEMC), the system ties together more than 17,000 cameras from a variety of city agencies and private entities.

According to O'Donnell, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has been the driving force behind the camera project and getting all the agencies involved to understand the importance of tying disparate surveillance systems into a joint platform that can be shared by everyone.

"It's been the mayor who has gotten everyone on one page," he explained.

Because the Chicago surveillance network includes disparate systems from across the city, O'Donnell said they manage the multitude of cameras using a map-based interface, which makes the system more user-friendly and allows operators to view and control cameras via a mouse click.

The OEMC has also setup specific user groups to control who is allowed to see specific cameras, as well as who can control certain camera functionality such as pan/tilt/zoom features. They can also control who has authority to archive video.

"We don't want stuff ending up on YouTube," O'Donnell said.

Among some of the next steps for the city's camera system, according to O'Donnell, includes looking into improving the cameras themselves with high-definition models, increased local storage and increased transmission bandwidth and reliability. Chicago is also examining how video analytics can be used to enhance the system and what additional benefits license plate recognition solutions can provide.

Lessons learned

A good example of the kind of positive impact video surveillance can have on a city can be found in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., which installed a 260-camera network a little more than a year ago. In fact, the city has more cameras per capita than any other town in the U.S.

According to J.J. Murphy, principal for Goals Consulting and former city manager of Wilkes-Barre, the city took a turn for the worse about five years ago when it reduced its police force from 108 officers down to 63. In the wake of these police cuts, Murphy said that no one wanted to come to the downtown area at night because it was perceived not to be safe.

"When police moved out, criminals moved in," he said. "We were having big city problems in a small town."

To help make the area safer, Wilkes-Barre decided to deploy a network of both wireless and wired cameras throughout the city. The city also decided to hire 24 new police officers and install lighting where needed.

Within the first year of the camera system being installed, 26 new businesses have moved into the area, bringing with them nearly $700,000 in new tax revenue, according to Murphy. Murphy said the city has also saved $60,000 in repairs to its playgrounds, which were plagued by vandals prior to the installation of the cameras.

Another lesson the city learned with the installation, according to Murphy, was to develop a strong community education program and to keep statistics on improvements that can be attributed to cameras.

"If you don't keep statistics, the system fails," he said.

Finding Funding

One of the biggest issues for any municipal surveillance project is funding. Many cities lack the resources necessary to design and install a robust surveillance network in their town without help from state, federal or private grants.

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