Hocus Focus
Hocus Focus

Jul 1, 2003 12:00 PM

One day last April, a car screeched to a stop near a fire station in downtown Palm Springs, Calif. The woman driving the car shouted for help. Her boyfriend, the other occupant of the car, was threatening her. An on-duty firefighter approached the car, while another called 911. A verbal altercation erupted between the firefighter and the man, who remained in the car. Arriving police officers directed the man to get out of the car, but he refused and reached for a gun. At that point, an officer shot and wounded the man. The man has since recovered and is in the county jail awaiting trial.

At trial, the prosecution plans to show video of the event shot by a police-operated closed-circuit television (CCTV) system that has covered downtown Palm Springs since June 2002. The department's 911 dispatch operators control the system. When a call comes in from a monitored area, an operator positions one of the system's 15 color cameras on the event and describes the scene to police en route to the site.

Palm Springs is one of approximately 1,000 state and local law enforcement agencies now using CCTV to assist police, according to the Security Industry Association (SIA), Washington. The number of police-operated CCTV systems has grown by about half over the past six years. In 1997, a study by the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 700 police agencies with more than 100 officers employed CCTV.

About 48 percent of those agencies used CCTV to provide in-car video, while 47 percent used CCTV for fixed-site and mobile surveillance.

A study released by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Alexandria, Va., in March 2001, notes that law enforcement CCTV systems have three key uses: crime deterrence, investigative assistance and evidence gathering.
Deterrence and Crime Control

Palm Springs installed its system to battle a crime increase that followed the opening of a number of new restaurants and nightclubs in the city's downtown entertainment district. "It was felt that cameras would be a good deterrent," says Comdr. Michael McCabe of the Palm Springs Police Department.

Metro Video Systems Inc., El Segundo, Calif., designed and installed the Palm Beach system. Fifteen Pelco color cameras were positioned on light poles owned by the city throughout the downtown area. The camera locations and pan/tilt/zoom mounts allow virtually full coverage of the downtown entertainment zone.

Video from the cameras travels back to the 911 dispatch center where it feeds into a Pelco switcher and digital recorder. The system records real-time video (30 frames-per-second) to disk drives. The drive fills up in about 15 days and then downloads the video to a Pelco videocassette recorder, which archives the material for 18 months.

Metro Video installed the system in two phases. The first phase used wireless technology to transmit the video. The wireless transmission path runs from the cameras to the roof of a tall downtown Hyatt hotel, where a repeater sends the signal to an antenna above the 911 dispatch center.

Designed as an interim solution to get CCTV up and running and to facilitate its expansion, the wireless system is now being replaced by fiber-optic cabling. "We have just finished a single-mode fiber run from the dispatch center to the roof of the Hyatt," says Todd Byer, a project manager with Metro Video. "We have also taken down the repeater. We plan to re-use this part of the wireless system to transmit video from additional locations as new cameras are added around the city."

Eventually, the entire transmission system will operate with fiber-optic cable. According to Byer, starting out with a wireless system and converting to fiber optics has proven to be a good model for CCTV systems designed to monitor large areas of a city.

On the other hand, such a model comes at relatively high cost. The Palm Springs system is approximately $500,000 and was funded through a combination of grants and forfeitures. "Cost issues are critical to the use of technology today," says Richard Chace, executive director of SIA. "Police departments often see great potential for technology and then find themselves overwhelmed by the cost of installation and the continuing costs of upkeep, maintenance, and training, which can be significant. If they don't go into this with eyes wide open, it can create a lot of problems."
Policies Governing The Use Of CCTV By The Police

Opting to deploy a CCTV system to monitor public areas carries policy implications. In Palm Springs, for example, it took four years to hammer out a CCTV policy. Chief of Police Lee Weigel first proposed the system in 1999, having studied the use of the technology in the United Kingdom. "It was a controversial proposal when it went to city council," says police Cmdr. McCabe. The system met resistance from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other local groups concerned with privacy issues.

To deal with those concerns, the police developed policies to prevent misuse. "The policy states that we cannot use the system to observe people unless we have a valid reason," McCabe continues. "The policy does allow us to view cameras related to situations called into the dispatch center."

When the cameras are not being used, they remain trained on the street scenes in a passive or non-moving manner. The police may view these street scenes, but they may not manipulate the cameras without a reason. Reasons would include a call to 911 or the observation of a crime or incident requiring police assistance.

"Policy must drive the use of this technology," Chace says. "It cannot be the other way around. Before implementing a system, you make an assessment of needs, reach out to the community, discuss problems that law enforcement wants to address, and write a policy that describes how technology will and will not be used," he continues. "The policy should also say who would be in charge of the technology."

Chace adds it is also important to decide how to arbitrate disagreements.

"Will you, for example, discuss issues with a community review board? If so, who will be on the board?" he says.

SIA and the IACP jointly issued a set of guidelines for establishing policy in 1999. The guidelines, which are updated regularly, outline issues that SIA and IACP believe police agencies should consider before installing CCTV systems that monitor public areas. These issues include signage, technological limitations, chain-of-custody, storage, training, uses to avoid and penalties for misuse.

While such guidelines may sound familiar, new CCTV technology injects wrinkles into implementation. Take chain-of-custody, for example. Police departments have dealt with videotape chain-of-custody procedures for years. Moving an original copy through a qualified chain of custody helps ensure acceptability in court. Digital recordings are different. Composed of electronic code stored on a disk drive, digital recordings appear to have no original proof comparable to original videotape. The software industry is working to solve these perceived problems. A current approach uses so-called electronic watermarking, a technique based on electronic tracking codes indicating that electronically stored images have not been altered. "I'm told these techniques are not completely foolproof," says Thomas Lambert, an attorney with the Los Angeles based firm of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp. He says only a handful of courts have looked at these issues.
Watching Washington, D.C.

The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in Washington, D.C., has used CCTV to monitor public areas since the eruption of public protests during a series of meetings between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in 2000. The first meeting took place in Seattle, and demonstrations there produced property damage, several arrests, and the use of tear gas by the police.

The next two meetings in the series were held in Washington, D.C., in the spring and fall of 2000. "The first time we deployed live CCTV was for the spring meeting," says Stephen Gaffigan, senior executive with the MPD.

By way of preparing for potential demonstrations during these meetings, the MPD contracted for the temporary installation of three wireless video cameras, which fed signals into the department's then new Joint Operations Command Center (JOCC). Located at police headquarters, the JOCC is operated by MPD, but may accommodate staff from other federal, regional, state and local law enforcement agencies.

The system proved itself to MPD officials during the first meeting. "At one point, we received intelligence that demonstrators planned to rush the police perimeter," Gaffigan says. Using the cameras, MPD officers scanned the crowd looking for large movements. Eventually, they spotted a sizeable group of protestors moving toward police lines at 22nd Street and Pennsylvania. Radio communications between the command center and police on the ground enabled police to reinforce the line, but respond to the crowd in a non-threatening way. "It ended peacefully," Gaffigan says. "The protestors asked if they could symbolically have some of their people arrested. That happened, and the demonstration dissipated."

MPD contracted for another three-camera system to monitor crowds during the 2002 Presidential inauguration. This time, CCTV helped prevent the police from making a mistake. Officers monitoring the cameras noticed someone behaving suspiciously in the crowd, passing objects out to a group of people. Officers near the scene were alerted. The cameras zoomed in, only to discover someone passing out T-shirts. "We backed off, and that was the end of it," Gaffigan says.

According to Gaffigan, had an officer on the ground spotted this activity and not been able to get the close-up view the cameras provided, the police may have created an unnecessary incident.

The success of the contract cameras led the MPD to purchase and install 14 more cameras on public buildings in the downtown area. The cameras are trained on public spaces around the National Mall, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, Union Station and other critical installations, as well as major arteries and highways that pass through downtown.

The installation drew fire from the ACLU, which argued that video surveillance has not been proven effective and that it is susceptible to abuse. Discussions between the ACLU and the D.C. City Council led to the establishment of written policies governing the use of the system. The MPD turned to the American Bar Association to develop policy guidelines.

Among the policies eventually adopted by MPD was a requirement that the system be turned off unless it is being used to monitor a specific event.
The Aurora Alternative

The small city of Aurora, Ill., has used CCTV cameras for several years to monitor its jail and booking areas, hallways outside the branch courtroom located at police headquarters, and its garages. Squad cars also have cameras.

Today, the city hopes to extend its use of CCTV technology, but not with a system designed to cover city streets. "I don't think we could afford a public system at this time," says Larry Langston, Aurora's director of community safety. "And there are liability issues related to those systems. For example, if you say you are going to monitor an area 24 hours a day, that means more staff."

But there are other ways to use CCTV.

Langston is currently preparing a grant request for $750,000 to test a wireless CCTV concept that will draw video from existing cameras in schools, hospitals, public buildings and police cars.

"Many schools and other public facilities already have their own CCTV systems in place," Langston says. "The technology we're considering would enable us, with the permission of the owner, to tap into their cameras. Suppose a shooting takes place in a school our security center could tap into cameras at the scene. So could responding officers."

Langston's grant request aims to pay for a pilot test of the idea in a local school or hospital. If the test is successful, software installations at public and private facilities with their own CCTV systems could adapt those systems for police monitoring.

Law enforcement agencies across the country see value in monitoring public places with CCTV. On the other hand, no comprehensive statistical review has looked at the impact of CCTV on crime. In 2001, an IACP study found that only eight of 200 police agencies using CCTV employed actually measured results. According to the report, of the eight agencies using formal measurement systems, three said CCTV had a great effect on crime, four said the effect was moderate, and one said it had a marginal effect on crime.

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