Pittsburgh's Housing Authority Employs Advanced Video Surveillance Strategies

May 20, 2014
The challenge was to pull together outdated and disparate systems into a modern, functional solution

 Public housing properties in Pittsburgh, Pa, were plagued with crime both during daylight and nighttime hours. Residents were afraid to leave their homes and their quality of life was suffering. Crimes, including shootings, were often unreported to police, while security guards lived in fear of retribution as a lack of submissable evidence kept criminals from being identified and locked-up.

Compounding the problem was the size and location of the widely dispersed communities within the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP) that serve 2,845 households. With 18 properties located throughout the city, deployment of cameras and the centralization of the system for monitoring was a significant issue.

Additionally, the communities needed to remain accessible for residents, as well as public services and deliveries; yet a large percentage of the reported crimes were conducted by non-residents, according to HACP management.

So what was the security objective in this challenging environment? HACP needed to implement a widespread video surveillance solution that provided comprehensive coverage of the streets within HACP communities, and could be accessed both locally by security personnel as well as centrally by HACP management.

The solution: video surveillance that works

HACP had a disparate array of analog pan-tilt-zoom cameras that were frequently pointed in the wrong direction, and as a result, completely missed events and/or provided poor video footage that could not be used as evidence to crimes committed on HACP properties. Crimes often went unsolved as a result because residents were afraid to come forward and report shoot outs and brawls. This left authorities to discover the incidents weeks, if not months later – if at all.

By investing in a long-term partnership with Samsung, the Housing Authority developed an overarching video surveillance program that covered all 18 communities around the Pittsburgh area. This was accomplished with the installation of over 800 Samsung IP cameras. Cameras include a combination of high performance pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) or megapixel (1.3 to 3 MP) cameras capable of capturing high-quality forensic evidence.

Johnson Controls, Inc. designed and built the system which, in addition to the Samsung cameras, included Intransa servers/storage devices; Alcatel Lucent switches; Milestone video management systems; and Altronix media and fiber converters. Project management by Johnson Controls, Inc. comprised overseeing sub-contractors, integrating the various elements, training and final commissioning of the system.

The new video surveillance system’s basic infrastructure consists of PoE capable IP video with feeds directly into local networked Intransa storage devices. Video and data from all of the remotely located storage units are processed through Milestone’s Video Management Software (VMS) at the HACP’s headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh. A monitor wall allows HACP security personnel to observe, isolate and grab composites of images they want from the server, which allows the remote devices to run smoothly without interrupting any video feeds. The system also enables authorized HACP staff to view recorded or live video from their desks. Fiber optic cabling was run to every location from the headquarters office in order to maintain consistent, high speed transmission speeds. Nearly every light pole in each of the 18 HACP communities holds as many as three cameras to provide coverage from literally every angle of the streets below. Community spaces, such as building lobbies, playgrounds and after-school programs are also outfitted with Samsung cameras.

Measures were taken to install cameras in hard to reach places to avoid tampering and to help avoid making the large video surveillance presence seem too overwhelming – yet noticeable as a deterrent to criminal activities. In the event a camera becomes disabled, an alert is sent out in real-time through the VMS system to notify officials.

 All of the high-rise buildings in these communities have guard stations or desks that have camera access. One particular community has a guard house at the main entry/egress point with four cameras that are deployed, including one inside the building, to monitor the security officer, and with whomever he or she is interacting. Three other cameras record every car and person that approaches or leaves the community. Those cameras provide high-resolution video evidence of when a suspect’s car might have left the facility, to identify the make, model and license plate number of the vehicle, and the direction it travelled.

Inside the high rises HACP operates, a security officer monitors surveillance video from their location, with cameras positioned in every hallway and common area, including the lobby, management office and entrances to the on-site health clinic. This ensures that a single guard can access up to 50 camera views while monitoring activity, providing a cost-effective alternative to using just security personnel.

The results demonstrate success

 The system first proved effective when the cameras captured images of a well-known offender, who frequented an HACP property but didn’t live there, but was involved in a shooting on HACP property.  No one called 911 or security, however, security personnel picked up the action using the Samsung video surveillance cameras. Because a bullet happened to hit one the buildings, HACP was classified as a victim for the prosecution. Using footage from the Samsung cameras, they were able to identify the individual accused of the shooting and used the video footage to prosecute him. He was found guilty and subsequently sentenced to prison.

Using the new Samsung cameras, HACP employees can quickly pull up evidence whenever law enforcement calls with an incident report – it could take 15 minutes or a few hours, depending on how much information the police provide. But increased opportunities for prosecution and closed cases have police working closely with HACP personnel to obtain the best possible evidence..

When an incident occurs, video footage is accessed at the HACP command center and burned onto a disk for law enforcement investigators, along with an incident report. Video disks and incidents are typically picked up by police four to five times a week, depending on the number of incidents.

The Samsung cameras are also used to help keep HACP administration appraised of situations regarding neighborhood nuisances. If an administrator observes a solicitor on their monitor they can alert a security guard to escort them off the property.  Equally important, the video surveillance system is playing a vital role as a deterrent to crime and helping to protect both staff and residents.

The system is also being used to add value and efficiency to HACP security personnel operations. The surveillance system facilitates guard tour audits, as each security officer is required to stop by several checkpoints during an average tour -- and they must be visible while passing by a surveillance camera. Random daily audits ensure that the security officers are completing their tours and checking all trouble areas.

The Samsung cameras are also used to assist with facility operations. For example, HACP personnel monitored a recent fire to evaluate how quickly the fire spread, how quickly residents inside the building exited, and if there was any reasonable suspicion of arson. This helped the HACP relay accurate video evidence to its insurance provider and facilitated a quick response.

The HACP is in the process of beta-testing more advanced features made possible using the video surveillance cameras and the VMS, including motion and sound detection, automatic tracking, and facial detection. These features will complement existing video capabilities that allow streaming of surveillance video feeds directly to the police stations and squad cars for faster investigations and response.


 This case study was a submission in STE’s 2013 Security Innovation Awards program. For details on how to submit for the 2014 awards, please email editorial director Steve Lasky at [email protected].