Surveillance systems transform security landscape for cities

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.

Atlanta, which has plans to tie together thousands of public and private through its Operation Shield video integration project, is currently working on securing grants. Some cameras currently being utilized by the city were installed as a result of an agreement with the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID), a public-private partnership that is funded by commercial property owners.

Dave Wardell, director of operations and public safety for ADID, said that the goal of the organization when it installed the cameras wasn't exactly to fight crime, but to help with crowd and emergency management as the city tends to be a hub for large conventions.

The cameras installed by ADID will be integrated into Operation Shield when the city's new Video Integration Center is opened later this year.

Murphy, who helped get Wilkes-Barre's system off the ground, said that the town was able to install its network by only using $50,000 out of the town's general fund as a result of grants they applied for and received.

"There's really no magic bullet," he explained. "It really is an innovative process."

One of Wilkes-Barre's major sources of funding for the project came through a transportation grant. The town also received gaming funds, as well as money from the state and public-private partnerships.

When applying for funding, Murphy suggests that cities explain what the economic impact will be of installing a surveillance network.

"It's going to come down to your municipality's vision," he said.

Similar to Atlanta, the city of Dallas was able install cameras in its downtown section as a result of funds raised by Downtown Dallas Inc., an organization that represents the area's business community.

According to Deputy Chief Brian Harvey of the Dallas Police Department, the cameras have proved a critical tool in helping to revitalize the downtown area.

The city is now looking at ways to help pay for monitoring of the system, which costs $1.5 million a year. According to Harvey, the system is watched over by retired police officers who make $27 an hour for no more than 20 hours a week.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Col. Wayne Mock, public safety manager and homeland security coordinator for the Midtown Blue public safety force in Midtown Atlanta, oversees a 48-camera system that is completely funded by the private sector.

Mock said that Midtown was crime ridden as little as six years ago, but with the help of the cameras, they've managed to make it safe again for area residents and visitors.

When Midtown Blue's first camera was installed several years back, Mock said that seven arrests were made within the first two weeks.

Impact on crime

An obvious return-on-investment measuring stick for any municipal surveillance network is its impact on crime. However, crime figures can sometimes be deceiving. As people begin to realize that their actions are being monitored, the deterrent effect of cameras comes into play.

In addition to the aforementioned vandalism incidents that cameras prevented in Wilkes-Barre, Murphy said they've made residents feel safe again.

"(The cameras) have certainly changed perception of our downtown," he said.

According to Wardell, the downtown Atlanta area has seen a 34 percent reduction in crime during the first three years of its camera program. Despite the impact that cameras have had on crime statistics in the city, Wardell said that the perception people have about cameras can be just as powerful.

"Perception is what we deal with everyday," he said. "Crime is going to go places that don't have cameras. Developers are going to the places that do."

The Dallas surveillance system, which consists of about 140 cameras, has contributed significantly to crime reduction efforts in the city.

According to Harvey, between 2004 and 2010, the downtown Dallas area saw a 41 percent reduction in crime.

"Folks are no longer scared to come out to have dinner or have a drink," said Martin Cramer, vice president of public safety for Downtown Dallas Inc.

Since the system was installed, Cramer said that more residential and commercial developments have been built in the downtown area.