Public surveillance system helps Canadian city reduce crime in downtown corridor
Public surveillance system helps Canadian city reduce crime in downtown corridor

Jul 1, 1998 12:00 PM
AC&SSI Staff

On a cold winter's evening earlier this year, the Regional Police of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, received a call reporting a robbery at a downtown bar. Shortly after arriving at the scene, officers had a description of a suspect, which they immediately relayed to their communications center. There, another officer took control of the city's three-camera public surveillance system and began a systematic search of the area. Soon, a man matching the description appeared on the monitor. Officers patrolling the area were alerted to the suspect's location, and he was quickly arrested.

According to police chief Alex McCauley, Sudbury's new closed-circuit television (CCTV) system has quickly become a powerful, cost-effective law enforcement tool.

"Overall, we have noticed a reduction in crime in the downtown area since the system was completed in late fall of 1997," he says. "We have been able to respond more quickly to disturbances. And in some cases, we have even been able to intercede with crimes still in progress."

In its short history, Sudbury's public CCTV system has assisted police in moving aggressive panhandlers off downtown streets. Vandals attempting to remove city parking meters were spotted by the system and quickly arrested. Using the cameras, police were able to locate and arrest a man carrying a handgun in public. The system also recorded a pedestrian being struck by an automobile.

Businesses press for CCTV Sudbury, located about 225 miles north of Toronto, is a city of just under 100,000 people. It is a city best known for its outdoor recreational opportunities and nearby nickel mines. And, according to Chief McCauley, it is the first city in Canada to install a public CCTV surveillance system.

Local business owners, concerned that residents were avoiding downtown Sudbury because of a fear of crime, pressed for the cameras. Initially, city officials wanted to move slowly due to fears that the public might not like being monitored by the police. Sudbury-based security equipment dealer Northern Voice and Video installed the first camera in December 1996 as part of a pilot project to determine the feasibility of monitoring the downtown area.

"There had been some talk about 'Big Brother' watching over the city," McCauley says. "Some of the local media picked up on this and madea story of it. But as it turned out, the negative reaction was very minimal compared with the vast support for the system."

During the summer of 1997, installation of the second and third cameras began. The total cost of the three cameras and related equipment was Can. $66,500. No taxpayers' money was used to get the system up and running. The local Lion's Club donated $48,000. Northern Voice and Video donated switching equipment, software and all installation costs. The Metro Centre Board, a public/private organization formed to boost downtown business, gave $10,000. Several local insurance companies and Sudbury Hydro, a local utility firm, donated the remainder. To commemorate the Lion's Club support, the system has been nicknamed "The Lion's Eye in the Sky."

Police reap the benefits Once the system was in place, the regional police assumed responsibility for operation and maintenance costs. The system consists of three SpeedDome Ultra cameras from Boca Raton, Fla.-based Sensormatic Electronics. The programmable functions of the cameras allow police to access and focus on a preset target or respond to an alarm in less than one second automatically. The unobtrusive domes measure 4.7 inches in diameter - half the size of conventional dome cameras.

Each camera is linked to the police communications center by a dedicated underground fiber-optic cable. An American Dynamics 2150 video matrix switcher allows the police to manage the system. The switcher lets an operator choose from several preprogrammed patrol patterns and recording options.

Sudbury police can take full control of the cameras at any time by using the switcher and an American Dynamics Excalibur graphical system manager. Excalibur displays a downtown map, as well as icons representing major intersections, buildings and other sensitive locations within the area, on a PC monitor. With the click of a mouse, the system operator can quickly pan a camera to focus on a desired site. Northern Voice and Video provided all system training at no cost to the department.

"It's an easy-to-use system that the officers can master in a very short time," says Mike Lawson, a co-owner and systems designer for Northern Voice and Video.

Continuous surveillance The real-time pictures from the cameras are displayed on three 20-inch color monitors, which are watched 24 hours a day by police officers. McCauley says he is currently using disabled officers who cannot perform full duties. In the future, he says, he may hire and train civilians to help with monitoring. The department continuously records each camera using time-lapse VCRs. Recorded tapes are kept for about two months before rotating back into the system.

The system is set up to view much of the city's 90-square-block downtown corridor. The cameras have been mounted high atop buildings to capture as wide an area as possible. Taking advantage of the cameras' 48X zoom capabilities, Sudbury police can monitor activities at all main intersections and shopping areas within the area, McCauley says.

Sudbury, which bills itself as "The Sunshine Capital of the North" in the summer, turns brutally cold in winter. Outdoor temperatures often head well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Initially, the system's operators worried that the harsh winter environment might freeze the cameras, leaving them virtually worthless. However, McCauley says, all three cameras, encased in heated enclosures, operated flawlessly through their first full winter.

The police chief says Sudbury based its CCTV system on British models. Britain is widely credited as having more CCTV cameras per capita than any other country. McCauley says British studies show clear evidence of increased economic development in areas under the watchful gaze of a public CCTV system.

Predators go elsewhere While it is still a little early to make a definite claim to that effect in Sudbury, McCauley says that what he has seen in his city points to a better downtown area for local residents.

"If people perceive the downtown streets are unsafe, they will stay away," McCauley says. "And when law-abiding citizens stay off the streets, the predators take over. This system has encouraged law-abiding people to come back downtown and forced the predators to go elsewhere."

Certainly, Sudbury seems satisfied with its "eye in the sky." In a recent editorial, the Sudbury Star newspaper called the CCTV system a "cost-effective form of policing" that had "brought a psychological boon to citizens who use the downtown."

Lorne Corlett, president of the region's Seniors Advisory Council, says the system has made seniors who live and shop downtown feel much safer.

"They haven't cut back on the police presence, so you have that plus the cameras," he says.

Chief McCauley says he has no intention of reducing his police staff as a result of the CCTV system. The cameras work in conjunction with his officers to help them cover a wider area more effectively, he says.

As he plans for the future, McCauley says he could see adding more cameras to monitor additional areas of Sudbury. And with a fiber-optic network throughout the region, it would be easy to add cameras in the five nearby towns also protected by the Sudbury Regional Police, he adds.

Also, the system could someday become a source of revenue for the city. McCauley says local businesses looking to increase the security of their operations could install cameras and then pay his department to monitor them.

"We want to be open and progressive to any ideas that will make the citizens of this region feel safe from crime," he says.

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