New Orleans police install intelligent cameras in Jefferson Parrish

New cams feature license plate recognition to identify stolen vehicles, fugitives

With no fanfare, the Sheriff's Office mounted two stationary video cameras on poles in an East Jefferson neighborhood in April 2007, DeSalvo said. After six months of testing and evaluation, the Sheriff's Office bought 13 more cameras for $289,033, Rivera said.

The cameras were manufactured by Active Solutions LLC of New Orleans, and bought from New Orleans vendor Southern Electronics Supply through a state contract. The Sheriff's Office used money from its general fund and shelled out $7,500 for electronic work and installation.

Southern Electronics was the first company that New Orleans tapped to provide about 50 crime cameras, hailed by Mayor Ray Nagin in 2003 as "witnesses that cannot be intimidated." Since then, New Orleans has erected 240 cameras from other vendors.

But the Nagin administration has come under fire recently because many of its cameras -- at least 100 damaged during Hurricane Gustav in September -- do not work. Two were on the blink when people were killed near them this month. In addition to the slow pace of repairs, concerns about sketchy purchasing and maintenance contracts have been voiced by City Council members.

In Jefferson Parish, Normand said he decided it was best to crawl before walking. The Sheriff's Office started small and kept the program under wraps, refusing through 2007 and most of this year to answer inquiries about it. Normand said he did not want criminals to get wind of the experiment, and he thought it was too early to declare the technology a success.

"We wanted to deploy it, play with it and figure out what its deficiencies were and remediate them before we go getting into a full-blown, across-the-parish-type system," he said. "We wanted to find the most effective way to weave it into the department."

Commanders eventually settled on using the cameras not so much to gather evidence for court but as extra sets of covert eyes during stings and as scouts for criminal hot spots.

The cameras run nonstop in 13 high-crime areas throughout the parish, but there is no 24-hour-a-day human monitoring. Instead, detectives rotate zones, checking specific locations.

For example, deputies could use cameras to keep an eye on an area where human surveillance might not be possible. The crime cameras, which tilt, zoom 500 feet and rotate 360 degrees, also can be programmed to patrol a block in a specific pattern or to watch the front door of a suspected drug den.

The Sheriff's Office would not disclose the locations of the 13 stationary cameras. Two others are portable units deployed when the need arises, as in May when deputies set up a camera to watch the Metairie home of an African-American family after someone used a chemical to burn the letters KKK in their front yard.

Deputies soon realized the cameras' limitations. They can be valuable if a crime happens to be committed in front of them, but they cannot focus on anything in particular, such as a face, unless programmed to do so or manipulated by a human, Larson said. The costs to employ round-the-clock human monitors would be huge. And, even then, the cameras are only as good as the person watching them.

"It's humanly impossible to monitor 50, 60, 70 screens."

Maintenance on the neighborhood crime cameras is handled by the supplier, Southern Electronics, for about $33,000 annually. These cameras have been relatively reliable, Sheriff's Office commanders said, with a handful of antennas bent during Gustav fixed quickly.

Despite the benefits of the cameras, Larson said they are not the sole answer to the region's crime problems.

"They're not going to solve crimes in themselves," he said. "You can't just say, 'We bought all these crime cameras, now we're going to solve all these crimes.' That's a stretch."

What they can do is provide investigators with solid leads on violent crimes and offer additional eyes on the street during searches for suspects or suspect vehicles.

"They're wonderful tools. But you have to utilize them to the best of their ability," Larson said.