New camera networks give police thousands of extra eyes

Wed, 2015-08-05 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi


It typically isn’t easy to find money in the budget to put more police officers on the streets. But some police departments are finding a way to stretch their resources. They’re developing new camera networks that give their existing officers the ability to be in thousands of places at once.

Police departments say the cameras are already there. And technology is now to the point where police could use them in real-time to follow a criminal while officers on the ground are rushing to catch up.

More departments are starting to make that investment.

Helping police be everywhere at once
In Texas, the Corpus Christi police department is building a monitoring hub that would allow officers to tap in to any of the 200 city-owned cameras. The idea is to let officers be virtually anywhere in an instant so they can more quickly catch their suspect when they arrive.

Under the plans, when a crime is committed, it would show up on a map. Also on that map: all the cameras that are in the area. Officers in the command center would be able to click from camera to camera to follow the suspect.

Corpus Christi is modeling its system after one that’s working in Philadelphia -- one that has already proven successful. In one case, Philadelphia police were able to track a suspect for more than four miles using cameras.

Real-time is great, but not necessary
While live camera feeds are most useful, cities are finding that camera networks can be very useful even during the investigative phase, long after they’ve lost track of the criminal. These types of networks can also give police a view that stretches well beyond city resources.

One might suspect that citizens would be inherently distrustful of any surveillance program, but police departments that have invited businesses and citizens to participate have had no trouble finding volunteers.

Philadelphia launched its SafeCam program in 2011, asking people to register their security cameras. Police don’t get a live feed from them; rather, they send an officer out to ask to review footage if a crime has been committed in that area. About 2,400 cameras are now part of the city’s program. So far, it says the civilian cameras helped it catch 191 criminals that would have otherwise remained free.

Police credit cameras for catching a man who threw a woman onto subway tracks. Officers had pictures of the attacker sent to their smartphones within 15 minutes and they arrested him two days later. Without the video, they wonder if they would have ever caught him.

Philadelphia’s success is inspiring other cities, including Buffalo, New York, to launch similar programs.

Getting started
Philadelphia’s efforts to build a command got a boost from federal funding that picked up half the cost, but Corpus Christi is finding it can build its network with its existing budget. It has set aside about $300,000 from its Crime Control and Prevention District fund and is looking for bidders to build the network and control center.

But the control center is also just one part of the program. The police department has been working already to identify cameras for the project. In some cases, the police department is taking over control of cameras that were owned by other city departments. Its inventory also highlights older cameras that should be replaced or upgraded.

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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