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Eye in the Sky II: How Other Cities Make It Work

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By Brian James Kirk

If you wonder about the impact of public video surveillance on crime look to Baltimore and Chicago. Law enforcement officials in these cities, which have mature and widespread surveillance operations, said that their camera units reduce crime and aide in policing, investigation and prosecution.

It was in 2005 that Mayor John Street and Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson visited Baltimore to see its year-old police surveillance network in action. Since then, Baltimore's CitiWatch video program, as its called, has expanded to include 500 police-controlled cameras.

Overall, areas in Baltimore where a camera is mounted show a 10 percent reduction in crime, according to Sheryl Goldstein, who oversees Baltimore's Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. Goldstein said that in 2009 cameras assisted in 1,725 arrests, half of those drug-related, and that they aided in the investigation of 38 shootings and homicides.

Chicago's Operation Virtual Shield program has helped solve 6,000 crimes since 2006, officials there said. Chicago's network of  "thousands" of cameras -- officials do not disclose how many, though estimates point to more than 3,000 -- includes sister agencies such as Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Housing Authority and 14 private sector partners.

Nancy LaVigne, a senior research associate specializing in crime at The Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy research firm, has been involved with an independent study of video surveillance networks in Baltimore and Chicago.

"Our preliminary analysis shows that we're seeing an impact on crime that is cost beneficial where [cities] are really using them well and integrating them into their law enforcement practices," LaVigne said.

 

Expanding the network

In Philadelphia, police report that since 2006, the city's 117 operational cameras have directly resulted in 214 arrests and 1,300 "contacts," incidents where cameras have been used to assist patrol officers and investigators. A handful of convictions are the direct result of camera footage, like a 2008 West Philadelphia shooting caught on tape that led to a plea for attempted murder.

Those figures could be improved by increased camera coverage, which is likely in Philadelphia as the city expands its network of cameras..

Over the years, Chicago's $30 million surveillance network -- comprised of 1,000 miles of fiber-optic and copper cable -- has been funded largely by federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security because Chicago's designation as a Tier 1 Urban Area gives it a chance to get more federal funding for public safety.

In December, Homeland Security elevated Philadelphia to a Tier 1 Urban Area and city departments and institutions are scrambling to take advantage of the new designation.

More cameras are expected in Philadelphia because the city procured a $2 million grant from the Southeast Pennsylvania Regional Counter Terrorism Task Force, which works closely with the Department of Homeland Security, for the installation of a more than 500 additional cameras around critical infrastructure in the city, according to Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison.

Baltimore is planning to expand its program by partnering with other city departments and private organizations, such as Johns Hopkins University, which operates a network of 140 cameras.

"There's a less expensive way to multiply what you're able to do by looking at universities, hospitals and private institutions that have installed video technology," Goldstein says.

Philadelphia, too, is looking to expand its camera network through strategic partnerships. The city is hoping to bring in video feeds from entities like the Delaware River Port Authority, the National Park Service, the sports stadiums and others. It is in talks, too, with Foxwoods and Sugarhouse casino officials about interfacing their cameras with police operations.

 

Learning from others

"We learn from our sister cities and that gives us an opportunity to get more cameras in areas that we need it," Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison says.

Partnerships, like Chicago's alliance with its school district, could be significantly beneficial in Philadelphia. After 26 Asian students were attacked in December at South Philadelphia High School, school administrators had 150 cameras installed to keep an eye the situation. But police are barred from viewing the cameras, a stipulation of a federal technology grant provided to the district, something that Gillison says he's lobbied against.

"It's that kind of operational interconnectivity that will allow us to help a situation, rather than be outside of things," he says.

The Philadelphia Police Department works in close contact with partners like SEPTA and Temple University. Camera unit officers can radio or call to SEPTA's monitoring unit to pan and zoom any of the 500 cameras on its network. Though the unit is unable to view Temple's 600 fixed-position cameras, the departments communicate closely, sharing crime tips and video evidence. "I don't know any other urban institution that operates with the police department as closely as Temple," Temple Police Executive Director Carl Bittenbender says.

Solid communication protocols have been critical to Baltimore's successful surveillance program, according to Goldstein, who took over the city's camera project in 2007. "I think that collaboration and cooperation between agencies has made it effective," she says. "That communication is the biggest thing."

There are also advancements in video surveillance technology coming that could help streamline those communications, making cameras an even more useful policing tool.

 

Eye in the Sky, Part III: The new technology behind video cameras.

 

 

 

 

 

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