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Eye in the Sky: A New Way to Combat Crime

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By Brian James Kirk

When it comes to fighting crime, Philadelphia is undergoing a video revolution. Within a few short years, the city is likely to be blanketed by a network of  more than a thousand state-of-the-art, high resolution cameras, scanning high-crime areas, critical structures such as the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, SEPTA stops and inner city streets.

The sweeping program had a modest beginning.  In 2007, Mayor John Street and the Philadelphia Police Department announced a $10 million initiative to install 250 surveillance cameras around the city. These are high resolution Unisys digital video cameras that, if perched on a street light, can pan, tilt and zoom into details, such as a person's face or a license plate number, from a full city block away.

Camera small size.jpgToday, 117 of the planned 250 cameras are in operation, perched above streets with their tell-tale blue lights blinking.  Another 76 are covered by plastic bags awaiting network configuration. They are expected to be operational soon.

But this is only the beginning. The number of cameras on the network is expected to expand exponentially in the near future. City officials are working on ways to link their Police Department operation with surveillance cameras used by such parties as SEPTA, local universities and private businesses to create a super-network of public space surveillance that can feed images back to the video monitoring room at Police Headquarters at Eighth and Race Sts.

These are not your old-fashioned, crude convenience-store cameras that offered up grainy, black-and-white images. The images produced by the new police cameras are high resolution, in full color and can be streamed to the computer screens at the monitoring unit in near real-time.

A shooting recorded

To demonstrate the efficacy of the cameras, police showed me their video of a June 2008 shooting incident on the first block of South Salford St. in West Philadelphia as captured by a police camera.

The video shows a black minivan pull up outside a rowhouse on South Salford.  Police said the aim of the three men inside the van was to rob the home of a local narcotics dealer named Terrell Green.

The tape shows the men stepping out of the rented van.  When they see Green standing outside his house, they open fire. Green, 20, is hit in the chest and the mouth.  The video shows a puff of dust as a bullet ricochets off the brown stucco faƧade of the house.

The video shows Green running back into the house and returning moments later carrying a handgun. It shows him firing at the men as they pile back into their van. Though located at intersections more than one block away, the cameras captured details, such as the revolver's flash and the bullet's ricochet, with cinematic clarity.

The video of the shooting eventually led to the identification and arrest of six suspects. Police say video surveillance footage resulted in a guilty plea for attempted murder in the case.

The incident was an early success for the surveilance program, which has seen delays because the existing technological infrastructure failed to produce images that police officials deemed suitable.

Since then, the technological glitches have been worked out.  There are plans to deploy new cameras and to utilize existing cameras in partnership with local and state organizations. There is also the potential that the city will receive federal Homeland Security grants and that will mean even more cameras.  In short, the city's camera network is poised to become a significant tool for law enforcement.

I got a sense of what the future will look like with a visit to the department's video monitoring room, at the Police Administration building on Eight and Race Sts., where a handful of limited- and restricted-duty officers lean forward, staring into dual-monitor Dell workstations, using joysticks to control and view the city's cameras around the clock. 

A 14-foor wide screen in the front of the room displays multiple camera locations at  high-crime intersections, such as Kensington and Allegheny Avenues and Broad St. and Erie Ave., adjacent to video feeds from other city departments, SEPTA and PennDOT.

Impact on crime

With plans in place to dramatically expand camera coverage, an important question remains: Do they impact crime?

"Going into it, we knew that the cameras were a tool.  But when they stop a homicide, how do you put a price on how much that is worth?" said Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Gaittens, who oversees the camera unit.

So, far, the cameras have been proven to reduce what police call disorder crime -- drug sales, assaults and vandalism -- by 13 percent. But they have not effected violent crime rates, according to a 2006 study completed by Temple University, which examined 18 pilot cameras installed in the city.

While civil libertarians express doubt about the cameras on privacy issues, the public supports them - as evidenced by a 75 percent "Yes" supporting police surveillance  in referendum that was on the city ballot in 2006. The expectation is that the widespread presence of cameras will reduce crime significantly.

That may not be the case, said Temple criminal justice professor Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe, a police intelligence expert who authored the 2006 study.

"If we had been asked prior to the referrundum: 'Are cameras effective at reducing violent crime?'" he says, "We'd have said that the evidence suggests not."

But, the research is not done. A two-year study of the expanded camera program in Philadelphia is now underway.  And similar studies done in Baltimore and Chicago, both of which have extensive surveillance networks, offer some promising conclusions.

Eye in the Sky, Part II: Two cities that make widespread use of cameras.

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