While dozens of inoperable crime cameras roil New Orleans, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office has been quietly monitoring a smaller network of neighborhood surveillance cameras for more than a year, with few repair problems.
Now, the Sheriff's Office is moving into a new realm of electronic investigation: license-plate recognition software. It has deployed 76 new cameras that can scan and identify license plates in traffic and quickly alert deputies to stolen vehicles and cars belonging to wanted felons. Commanders say the system is more cost-effective than conventional surveillance cameras and can deliver investigative results within seconds.
"We're very excited about this technology. It's the quickest way to get our hands around an individual with a stolen vehicle," Sheriff Newell Normand said. "It's a fully automated system. It has a lot of flexibility, and it's not as labor intensive as the other types of cameras."
The Sheriff's Office kick-started the new system two weeks ago. BearCom, a Dallas company, won the $626,680 contract to provide the equipment, and the Sheriff's Office paid for it using two federal grants totaling more than $670,000, said Chief Financial Officer Paul Rivera.
The cameras capture still images of vehicles and their licenses plates, then instantaneously check them against a database of vehicles reported stolen. The system can identify a hot car and alert authorities within seconds of scanning the tag.
There are 32 such stationary cameras throughout Jefferson Parish. The Sheriff's Office would not disclose locations but described them as a mix of crime hot spots, affluent neighborhoods, middle-class subdivisions, lower-income neighborhoods, major thoroughfares and routes into and out of the parish.
Another 44 cameras have been mounted, in sets of four, onto 11 patrol cars. Each of these mobile systems lets the patrol deputy scan vehicles passing in traffic on either side of the unit as well as vehicles traveling in the opposite direction, viewable through a rear-mounted camera. A side camera scans parked vehicles, letting deputies troll parking lots.
Stolen-car alerts pop up immediately on the deputy's in-car computer.
Capt. Michael DeSalvo Jr., director of management information systems, said the cameras can scan at speeds up to 80 miles per hour.
The Sheriff's Office now averages 30,000 license-plate scans per day, with about seven to eight hits for stolen vehicles. Deputies are recovering three to four stolen vehicles per week, compared with the same amount per month before the system was implemented, authorities said.
Normand said the technology can do more than help collar a driver for possession of stolen property. Armed robbers and burglars tend to use stolen cars to commit their crimes, Normand said, so the license-plate cameras can help officers quickly track stolen vehicles and apprehend suspects in more serious offenses.
The cameras also can track license plates supplied by victims or witnesses to crimes, said Capt. Emile Larson, deputy commander of narcotics. Suppose a witness jots down the tag number of a car used in a bank robbery. That number can be entered into a database, and the cameras can join the search for the car.
DeSalvo said such lists can be made to track wanted felons, sex offenders or even vehicles connected to Amber Alerts.
"It's limitless," said DeSalvo, who expects the Sheriff's Office to double its number of license-plate recognition cameras by the end of 2009.
So far deputies have done the maintenance on the cameras, but the Sheriff's Office will eventually seek a maintenance contractor, DeSalvo said.
The license-plate cameras are being rolled out about 18 months after the Sheriff's Office quietly began experimenting with conventional crime surveillance cameras.
Normand's predecessor, Harry Lee, began talking publicly about installing neighborhood crime cameras in 2006. He vowed to buy cameras as a way to combat an increase in crime after Hurricane Katrina.
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.