Innovative Surveillance

Oct. 27, 2008
The neighborhood-based, proactive video monitoring of the Baltimore Citiwatch program was named an ST&D Innovation Award runner-up

Baltimore's location on the northern Chesapeake Bay has been at the heart of its social and economic development. Farther inland than other eastern seaports, the city is convenient to landlocked areas. Through careful city planning and cooperation between public and private investors, Baltimore has entered the ranks of America's "comeback cities" in recent years. Its downtown business district has been transformed into a Mecca of sparkling new hotels, retail centers, and office buildings; however, as one of the nation's most violent cities in recent years, Baltimore needs innovative, cost-effective assistance in fighting crime and creating safer neighborhoods.

The Challenge
After a number of years of falling crime rates, violent crime in most of America's cities is on the rise again. Starting in 2005, Baltimore, like several other cities, wanted to provide better protection in high-profile, tourist areas and to give the police more tools to better do their jobs.
After observing a sophisticated surveillance project in the Westminster area of London and a small citizen-led video surveillance project in his own city's Greektown neighborhood, Baltimore's mayor at the time, Martin O'Malley, hit upon the idea to harness video technology to fight crime.
The Baltimore CitiWatch Program was established with Department of Homeland Security funds totaling several million dollars. But after installing some 50-plus IP cameras directly on the city's network to cover the nicer areas of downtown, the challenge remained how to extend the system to Baltimore's meaner streets - those lacking a fiber network and where support may not be as great.

The Solution
In mid-2005, O'Malley announced the first phase of the Baltimore CitiWatch Program with the opening of a state-of-the-art central Control Center, or the Atrium Center. Civilian staff would view images on computer monitors and on a 60-foot-wide Barco projection wall. The Atrium Center, which was designed by engineering and integration firm M.C. Dean Inc., directly monitors the 50 cameras located throughout the immediate West Side area. The color, all-weather cameras are equipped with low light and pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) capability. All surveillance monitoring staff is trained in security and CCTV operations and must successfully pass the appropriate background check.
After two years of success with the Citiwatch program, the system has continued to expand. Now nearly 400 cameras - most mounted on top of street light poles - provide 24-hour surveillance of downtown tourist areas, some of the city's most violent neighborhoods, and in five public housing projects.
The Citiwatch Atrium Center has access to all project video feeds from the hundreds of permanent DVTel PTZ cameras and temporary RMS Technology Solutions' PODSS cameras (Portable Overt Digital Surveillance System) located throughout five high-crime neighborhoods. The Atrium Center can also access video feeds from the housing project cameras. While the Atrium has access to all live and stored video data, the focus is on the West Side cameras, while staff usually views the remaining feeds on request by other neighborhood and/or housing monitoring stations.
The Mayor's Office of Information Technology drives overall planning and implementation and then turns each completed project phase over to the Baltimore Police, while assisting with ongoing maintenance. The DVTel intelligent Security Operations Center (iSOC) platform, with the Network Video Management System (NVMS) at its core, was selected as the primary command-and-control management software and to provide IP network video surveillance for the IP surveillance cameras.

Neighborhood Centers and Proactive Monitoring
In addition to the Atrium Center, Baltimore Police have established five police station monitoring centers where retired police officers, using the DVTel NVMS, provide around-the-clock proactive monitoring from dedicated monitoring rooms. Camera coverage has expanded to include the most crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhoods along Monument St., Greenmount Ave, and in Park Heights. All cameras are constantly recording at 30 frames-per-second. Live video is viewed at 15 fps and the city maintains an archive of 30 days of recording. However, post-event analysis is not the primary focus of the Citiwatch program.
"We're actively looking for suspicious activity and our monitoring personnel are skilled in knowing what to look for," says Beth Hart, manager of CCTV for the Baltimore Mayor's Office of Information Technology. "Once they pick something up, they monitor live, as well as do playback, then they are in direct contact with the officers who are called to the scene. When those officers arrive they receive as complete a brief as possible on what happened, who's involved, and the possible action next steps."
When staff sees something suspicious, they can immediately take control of a particular camera, zoom in, and call the KGA (police communications network), which will dispatch a police car directly to the scene.
Since program inception, numerous violent acts have been successfully investigated and are often caught live so monitoring personnel can effectively support police reaching the scene of an incident. In a recent example of proactive monitoring, monitoring staff viewed a man putting on a ski mask on a street corner, a car was immediately dispatched to the location, and the robbery was foiled.
The Citiwatch program over two and a half year has been highly effective. With literally thousands of arrests coming directly from video surveillance, Baltimore Police estimate violent crime is down year-on-year more than 15 percent in the areas covered by the project.

Innovative Design and Implementation
Tele-Tector of Maryland designed the dedicated fiber backbone and served as Project Manager. Tele-Tector needed to manage the installation process and the ongoing maintenance and use of the cameras with various City of Baltimore entities and departments such as Baltimore Gas and Electric, the Departments of Public Works, Transportation, Health, and others.
Many of the city surveillance cameras and all of the housing cameras are wireless, which was part of the appeal of the DVTel solution. "We don't have optic fiber running under the streets once we expanded outside the main downtown area," said Hart. "We couldn't be trenching for blocks and blocks, so DVTel's combination of wired and wireless technology was appealing."
Wireless camera signals, using Microtek technology, from groups of cameras are brought back to a fiber node and then video signals travel by fiber back to the DVTel head end.
All camera feeds are available at the Central Command Center via an 800 MHz ring around the city, to which all the neighborhood and housing cameras are connected. The fiber ring has a portion solely dedicated to surveillance use.
In addition to the permanent PTZ cameras, Baltimore Police have another innovative tool in their surveillance arsenal: the Portable Overt Digital Surveillance System (PODSS) cameras are temporary, in-a-box cameras that can be deployed in a very short time to monitor any location. A visit with Officers Ed Mendez and John Corona found them monitoring a PODSS camera fixed high up on light poll trained on Mama's Grocery in the Eastern District. Lt. Matthew J. Bauler, who has been with Citiwatch practically from inception, reported that just days previous Mama's had been teeming with an open air narcotics bazaar. At mid-day, the blinking purple light atop the PODSS camera observed no one outside the store, and residents sitting on their stoops, children playing.
Officers Mendez and Corona demonstrated how they can park their squad car a few blocks away from the PODSS unit and by maintaining line-of-sight for their wireless receiver, monitor the activity shown by the camera from within their car. The Department's 107 PODSS units come equipped with a digital hard drive that can be swapped out for downloading and review. Officer Mendez commented that the PODSS and the Citiwatch program in general have been so effective that the Baltimore Police have had the enviable problem of the system "backing up" as they work through processing all the arrests.

The Future of Citiwatch
The city is looking at additional neighborhoods to add to the program including Cherry Hill and the Southwest District. Hart says that they are working on a lengthier training program that some day could be added to the Police Academy curriculum so all officers understand and learn how to best use the Citiwatch system.
As technology gets better and budget becomes available, Baltimore will look at expanding the central monitoring function to effectively augment neighborhood monitoring stations and improve central command and control.

This story was submitted by Beth Hart, manager of CCTV for the Baltimore Mayor's Office of Information Technology and Bruce Doneff, DVTel Inc.