Miami police plan to use hundreds of high-tech cameras to fight crime

Plan will enable department to watch up to 200 cameras at once in new command center


June 08--It's not quite Big Brother, but in the next few months Miami police expect to have technology in place to zoom in, identify and follow people enjoying events on Biscayne Boulevard, eating dinner outside in Brickell or just doing their thing in Overtown, Little Haiti and Model City.

The city police department is moving forward with a complicated plan to allow them to watch up to 200 closed-circuit television screens at once in a new high-tech command center. There will be 25 high-definition, 55-inch television sets fed by up to 400 cameras placed around town.

The five servers that are the heartbeat of the system have capacity to take feeds from up to 2,500 cameras at a time.

The plan to catch bad guys, though, has come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which questions whether the cameras will invade people's privacy in apartments and cars, and if the proper protocols are in place to prevent abuse of the system.

The cameras would be attached to a variety of sources that include red light cameras, building rooftops, street poles and a new but controversial GPS bullet tracking system that city commissioners agreed to purchase in April -- even though South Florida's two largest law enforcement agencies had discarded it because of flaws.

Overall cost for the technology, including the GPS ShotSpotter system, is less than $700,000, with about half the money coming from federal funds meant to fight terrorism. That's not terribly expensive in the post 9/11 era, when such mounted cameras were credited with identifying the Boston Marathon bombers, notes Miami police Chief Manuel Orosa. Much like in New York and Tampa, and to a lesser degree London, the technology would give police eyes in the sky with the ability to constantly track several neighborhoods around town at the same time.

"It will help us solve crimes; it will help us deter crimes," Orosa said. "We're mostly using resources that are already out there. It's a good investigative tool and a deterrent."

Complicated negotiations needed to get the systems in place are still ahead and would increase the cost: Orosa is counting on city agencies like the Downtown Development Authority, the Bayfront Park Management Trust and even the Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency to foot the bill in their neighborhoods for dozens of the zoom-in cameras, which cost as much as $4,800 each.

When complete, the command center televisions would be linked to 144 red-light cameras at street intersections, about ten would be on rooftops next to ShotSpotter sensors, while dozens more would come from cameras that were set up eight years ago along the Biscayne Boulevard corridor but remain inactive. The rest would be purchased from the city agencies. Under the plan, the police department would have to purchase the cameras that will go next to the gun tracking devices. That money has yet to be identified.

In addition to the Biscayne and Brickell corridors, the city wants ShotSpotters along rooftops in Overtown, Little Haiti and Model City, but still must complete agreements with several private property owners in those communities where the system would be placed. Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff heads up the DDA, which oversees economic development in Miami's downtown neighborhoods around Flagler Street, and he is on board.

"Anything we can do to help catch criminals is something I think we should do," Sarnoff said.

The plan doesn't come without its detractors.

The ACLU of Florida sees it as unnecessary snooping and "indiscriminate continued surveillance" that would be more appropriate at large sites where people gather like the Port of Miami or Miami International Airport. Also, South Florida's two largest law enforcement agencies -- Miami-Dade County Police and the Broward County Sheriff's Office -- have terminated contracts with ShotSpotter system owner SST because the technology mistook too many random noises for gunfire and didn't help much in real-time crime-fighting.

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