Rapid results
Rapid results

Jan 1, 2001 12:00 PM

CCTV cameras succeed quickly to deter graffiti on San Francisco's transit trains.

It has been said that San Francisco is the most political city in the nation, with residents expressing their beliefs freely and frequently through protests, petitions, political organizations and other means.

There's one form of free expression, however, for which most citizens and governmental authorities have little tolerance - graffiti and vandalism on the public transit system. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) district covers approximately 100 miles of track, has about 40 stations, and is made up of towns and cities in three counties - San Francisco, Contra Costa and Alameda. The city of Oakland is included in the district.

Graffiti and vandalism on the trains can get mean. "One of the big problems has been window etchings," says BART Police Sergeant Frank Lucarelli. Lucarelli is in charge of the 180-officer department's Special Enforcement Team (SET) and its Together Against Graffiti (TAG) team. And, it is in the latter role that he has helped bring to fruition a video surveillance program that currently includes more than 80 cars and two stations (part of a pilot project), and is slated to add state-of-the art video equipment to another 115 cars over the next two years.

In addition to etching windows, vandals like to slash seats and make permanent marks on the inside of the cars' walls. "Vandalism and graffiti on the trains costs us $1.6 million a year to clean up," says Lucarelli. "A lot of the window etchings never get repaired because it's so costly."

In 1997, BART created an anti-graffiti task force, which includes members of several operating departments. One of these is the BART Police. Several of Lucarelli's officers suggested the idea of putting cameras on the cars as a way to combat graffiti. They believed the cameras would help deter crime and also aid in investigation and apprehension of suspects.

With the approval of BART's 12-member board of directors (four from each of its three counties), a vendor was named to install four fixed, color circuit board cameras and a Panasonic time-lapse VCR in each of 80 cars. The cameras are connected by coaxial wire to the VCR, which is located at one end of each car in a locked panel and is plugged into the train's main power supply. Whenever the train is running, the VCR runs.

John Davenport, a special enforcement officer, has been involved with the video project. He explains that the BART board was already aware of the value of video in fighting crime because the district had already placed 400 video cameras in the stations before the project to outfit the cars with cameras was proposed.

"We started installing cameras in the `70s, when BART commenced operation. The cameras are wired to the station agent's booths. This allows the agent to look at platforms, elevators, the ends of stations. Images from about 100 of these cameras are transmitted back to BART offices at the Lake Merritt station via amplified coaxial, radio frequency or twisted-pair phone lines.

"This system had allowed us to solve a very big criminal scam in which people were defrauding the district by obtaining free tickets. The scam resulted in losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of the perpetrators were caught on camera, which led to solving the case," says Davenport.

When cameras were proposed to fight vandalism on trains, the BART board was receptive. To outfit the first set of 80 cars, Advanced Electronics Group (AEG), Los Angeles, received a contract.

Images are stored on the tape for about a week before it is rewound and reused. "We only look at the tapes when we notice fresh damage or there is a crime," says Lucarelli.

Patrons riding the trains say they feel safer on cars that have cameras, and feedback from the public has been quite positive, he notes. (BART has sought to involve the public actively in its anti-graffiti campaign, setting up a "Graffiti Hotline" and offering $500 to anyone supplying information that leads to an arrest for graffiti vandalism.)

The cameras, mounted on the ceilings of the trains, are positioned to cover the middle and ends of the cars. Signs stating that riders are subject to being videotaped are prominently displayed for passengers entering the train.

"The cars with cameras have minimal damage from graffiti or vandalism," says Lucarelli. "There's been a huge decrease in criminal activity, no major window etchings or other problems. But we're still seeing some losses in the other, non-equipped cars. Vandals walk through the trains, look at the ceiling, and see that there are no cameras on these trains. So they have a field day, do their etchings, and usually are not detected."

As a result of the success of the first phase of the anti-graffiti project, the Board approved a program to outfit 115 more trains. Seven have thus far been completed as part of a pilot program, which proved successful. The vendor for this second-phase transit car video project is Vidtech, Sunnyvale, Calif. The company is providing equipment and helps somewhat with installation. However, most of the installation is being done in-house by BART communications and engineering employees.

Equipment for this phase of the project is state-of-the-art, with SONY HSR-1 digital recorders installed in the trains, along with Sony fixed, color digital cameras in the cars. The estimated cost to equip the 115 cars is $1.2 million, says Lucarelli. The plan is to outfit an average of one car a week, and the effort is expected to take two years.

The digital equipment, notes Lucarelli, has excellent quality. The Sony HSR digital recorders offer over 500 TV lines of resolution, and large storage capacity of 60 Gbytes. The recorder has a built-in four input multiplexer board capable of being upgraded to input 16 cameras and which contains an RS-232C interface, making communication with external equipment possible.

In addition to putting cameras in the train cars, BART is also conducting a pilot project to install video equipment at two stations, the Coliseum Station in East Oakland and the Civic Center station in San Francisco. Video from these two stations will be transmitted by fiber-optics some eight to 10 miles away to BART headquarters at the Lake Merritt Station in Oakland.

This pilot project, which has gotten under way with $150,000 in funds, uses the SONY HSR-2 recorder, which is connected to 16 newly purchased Sony SSC CX34 fixed color digital cameras with adjustable lenses at the Coliseum Station.

This station, notes Davenport, is a high-volume location serving the Oakland Coliseum, where the Athletics and Raiders play baseball and football.

At the Civic Center station, existing fixed cameras have been left in place, and six Pelco Spectra Dome SD5BCPGE1 pan/tilt/zoom cameras are to be added. (Approximately 10 Spectra Domes are to be added to the Coliseum Station as well.)

The cameras will be placed at locations throughout the station, such as platforms and fare gates.

At the Coliseum and Civic Center stations, the cameras will be connected by coaxial wire to a Pelco 9740 matrix switcher, which allows the operator to select the camera he/she wants to view.

A Pelco MX4016CS color multiplexer at the Coliseum Station will allow an operator to send video to a monitor in the station agent's booth. It is expected, but not certain, that a similar system will be put in place at the Civic Center station.

The Sony HSR-2 recorder will be used at the Civic Center as well as at the Coliseum.

A dedicated fiber optic network installed by BART to run along its tracks, encased in a shielded cable, carries the video from the Coliseum and Civic Center Stations to the BART offices at the Lake Merritt Station.

BART, notes Davenport, already has in place a fiber system that covers more than 90 miles. Train signals and other communications are routed to the BART Lake Merritt administrative offices over this system, along with the security data.

The information is routed from the fiber to a Pelco 9760 Switcher, according to Davenport. The video can be accessed at the Police Dispatch Center at Lake Merritt, which is equipped with two Sony PFM510A2WU 42-inch high-resolution flat-screen monitors and two 20-inch Sony monitors.

In the Special Enforcement Team room at Lake Merritt, a ceiling-mounted Epson Projector also connected to the Pelco 9760, giving operators access to cameras at the Coliseum and Civic Center stations as well.

BART has a large central control room for its more than 600 trains. Davenport said that plans call for certain operators in this room to have the ability to view the trains through the CCTV system and control them based on conditions at the stations. "We may tell an engineer to arrive very slowly at a very crowded station, based on these camera images, or to wait longer while loading a train at a very crowded station," says Davenport. "We could also alert the engineer instantly if we view an accident, such as someone falling on the tracks.

"We're building an infrastructure," continues Davenport. "Eventually, we'd like to connect all the stations to the central CCTV system. The BART District will have to decide."

According to Lucarelli, the cameras at the stations have already been useful in investigations. In one incident, a woman was assaulted and robbed and the camera images are helping BART police to track down a suspect.

Lucarelli believes that the video capability will also help the district to control liability claims. "We have had situations in which people said something happened, that they were pushed, that pavement was wet, that banisters were loose, and they have brought lawsuits. There is the potential with the video equipment to protect the district from liability because we can see what has actually occurred in many cases," says Lucarelli.

If BART's approach to fighting graffiti is unique, it is no more so than the district itself. Created in 1951 by the California State Legislature as a commission with 26 members from nine counties originally involved, BART's mission was to relieve the automobile congestion that was clogging the bridges spanning the Bay. In 1957, the Legislature formed the BART district and gave it taxing power, along with authority to levy property taxes to support general obligation bonds, if approved by 60 percent of the voters.

Eventually, the district was reduced to three counties, with a 12-member Board of Directors. Initial funding for the system, which would include the transbay tube structure installed on the bay floor as deep as 135 feet, and 33 stations serving 17 communities in three counties spanning 71.5 miles, was projected at $996 million. This was the largest single public works project undertaken in the United States by local citizens. Funds were to come from a bond issues secured by property taxes and future BART revenues. Subsequent funds came from the sales of bonds pledged against sales tax revenues.

By the late `60s, BART began obtaining federal monies, which were used to help offset the cost of the 450-car fleet and system wide landscaping. Federal aid accounts for just 20 percent of the total $1.6 billion investment in the system today. BART began operating in the fall of 1972. Two years later, the U.S. Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1974 was passed. BART officials believe that if the system was being built today, nearly 80 percent of its capital costs could be federally funded.

Several years before BART began operating, legislation was passed forming an autonomous law enforcement agency, the BART Police Department. In 1975, BART police were given full-time peace officer status anywhere in the state, even when off duty. While most BART police officers have patrol duty, there is a full range of functions in the department, including detective, field training officers, canine handlers, bicycle patrol, special investigations, youth services, field evidence technician, and anti-vandalism and special-enforcement teams.

For the CCTV program (the 80-car first phase, 115-car second phase, and the Coliseum and Civic Center Station pilot projects), vendors were chosen by bids based on BART specifications written by R.J. Grimes. The BART directors approved the final choice of vendor with the input of legal department rankings and BART police testimony. For instance, Davenport spoke in favor of the bidder for the 115-car project even though this bidder wasn't considered the lowest at first, because the bidder's equipment was appropriate while the lowest bidder had equipment that might not work as well.

The funding, Davenport says, comes out of the BART District budget. The 115-car project, for instance, is part of a larger capital improvement project to refurbish 25-year-old cars, which are getting new electronics, motors, wheels, lighting, seats, carpeting and, now, new CCTV equipment as well.

Discussing the uniqueness of the video project, Davenport says, "I'm sure many transit systems have cameras in their stations. But I don't think anyone else has cameras in their cars. And to centralize the technology in this way is unique."

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