Digital stakeouts

     When the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) conducts sustained surveillance of marijuana grow fields, they need video systems that not only produce high-quality images, but that also tolerate rain, humidity and temperature fluctuations — even dirt.

     The case for video surveillance technology is only as strong as the quality of the final evidence. For more than 12 years, KBI has used video surveillance systems from Sur-Tec Inc., part of the Clarence M. Kelley Group, headquartered in Lenexa, Kansas. Sur-Tec, an original equipment manufacturer that supplies equipment solely to the government marketplace, makes a digital video surveillance system called the XOA Series, which KBI has employed for observation and investigations. Douglass Jorgensen, a senior special agent with KBI, says the agency has primarily used the system for drug-related investigations. The 96-sworn-member strong agency recently acquired more than a dozen unmanned, portable XOA Series systems, which produce video with high-evidentiary value; save time and money associated with court costs; and reduce labor expense.

Freeing up manpower

     Video surveillance technology frees up investigators for field assignments, rather than tying them to the surveillance site for long stretches of time. This is especially valuable for sustained video surveillance, when it may be necessary for equipment to be installed for days or even weeks. In sustained surveillance situations, wages and overtime for staffing the surveillance job can quickly accumulate.

     "Surveillance might run four to five days to a month or more," Jorgensen, a 26-year KBI veteran, says. "Even for a short duration, there is significant cost savings [with a video surveillance system]."

     Typical surveillance — without video — of an outdoor marijuana grow field requires at least two people, sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. With video, however, four agents work as a team to install equipment, then visit the site twice a week to check video, adjust settings and replace batteries as needed, Jorgensen says. For example:

  • Manned surveillance: Two agents working seven days a week, 15-16 hours per day — 210 to 224 hours. If those agents work 40-hour work weeks, the total overtime for the seven-day surveillance equals 130 to 224 hours.
  • Video surveillance: A four-agent team visits the site twice a week for 4 hours a day — 32 hours.

     By utilizing digital video surveillance, KBI is able to let the technology observe the field. The savings add up.

     "You still go out every few days to check the equipment and batteries, retrieve media from the cameras and do a preliminary review of the video," Jorgensen says. "We generally take at least four people, for safety and security reasons."

     Though the installation and operation of a video surveillance system does require personnel, it's a fraction of the time and cost compared to a completely manned operation.

Rugged equipment

     Outdoor surveillance such as KBI's marijuana field and other drug-related activity requires equipment designed to withstand harsh settings and rough handling. With multiple camera systems and a variety of features available, operators can configure the components to match the scene and objectives. And because XOA does not rely on infrared sensors, it can be installed away from the scene, maintaining covert operations and improving officer safety.

     These features attracted KBI to XOA's predecessor, the LAN-MINE system, when it was released in 1996. The agency has since upgraded to XOA's advanced digital imaging technology and expanded features.

     Other law enforcement agencies across the country also recognize the value of the XOA system: It was the second-most requested product of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program (CEDAP) in 2007. Thanks to CEDAP, 366 local, state and other emergency response agencies received XOA systems equipped with four cameras as part of $33.7 million in direct assistance to enhance local response capabilities.

     The core of an XOA-based video surveillance system is the combination of a digital imaging system and a PC. The field-deployable components are housed in a portable, weatherproof and environmentally sealed Pelican hard-shell case.

     Investigators select and install up to four camera platforms to suit each individual surveillance venture, depending on the type of operation (marijuana grow fields, meth labs, vandalism, illegal dumping, etc.), whether it must be manned or unmanned; and allowing for lighting conditions, distance limitations, terrain, peripheral options, officer safety and budget.

     With XOA, investigators can control up to four imaging systems that include the camera, mount and cables. Sur-Tec's line of cameras includes:

  • XOA-PTZ — A long-range, pan-tilt-zoom camera and platform that can be used in either color or black-and-white mode.
  • XOA- IRCAM — A high-resolution, color, day/night infrared bullet camera.
  • XOA-C-FF or XOA-BW-FF — A fixed focal length bullet camera (available for color or black-and-white recording).
  • XOA-DNIS — A long-range day or night imaging system encased in a small weather-resistant and watertight package. The system can switch between color and black-and-white image display, and its camera shoots through a Lexan viewing port.

     KBI uses two-camera XOA systems for drug enforcement surveillance. The agents install the XOA-DNIS and XOA-FF imaging systems and controller according to the particular conditions and targets.

     The mix of cameras accommodates a range of situations and investigative objectives. For example, KBI often positions one camera with a wider view to help identify where suspects access a grow field. They place a second camera with a more direct, front-on view, intending to capture the individual's face. "We can be as far away as 100 yards and still get good video," Jorgensen says. "After a week, we caught a suspect wearing a camouflage suit with a full-face camouflage hood and face mask because we actually could ID him."

Through-the-lens technology

     XOA's innovative, through-the-lens technology allows the operator to select a specific region on the screen to monitor for motion detection. The feature minimizes false triggers often associated with systems based on infrared sensors.

     Whether XOA runs one imaging system or four, investigators can capture video in three modes:

  • 24/7 continuous or time-scheduled recording at a pre-defined resolution and frame rate.
  • Through-the-lens, multi-zone motion detection, multi-zone masking, at a pre-defined resolution and frame rate.
  • Through-the-lens motion detection combined with 24/7 continuous recording at a single frame per second during non-events. This mode allows an auto-switch to activate a higher resolution and frame rate (defined by the user) upon event trigger.

     The system's monitor is touch-screen sensitive. Its simple design minimizes the number of push-button controls and speeds overall programming and set-up. The operator can maneuver cameras and pinpoint areas within the image when motion is detected. The interface also supports split-screen monitoring to view video from up to four cameras simultaneously.

     Using drop-down menus, operators schedule recording and establish thresholds for motion detection to focus on the target area. Thus, XOA runs only when the operator specifies. Tailoring the settings minimizes false triggers and conserves battery power.

     Weather, terrain, wildlife and installation techniques push the limits of regular cameras, computer hardware and related components. Other electronic devices are sensitive to physical wear and tear and "creative" installation techniques. However, the XOA Series system is rugged enough to tolerate a variety of environmental factors. KBI agents often bury cameras near grow fields. In one case, a suspect actually stepped on the camera; there was no damage to the equipment, and agents still retrieved usable video. "Wherever you can hide it, you can use it," Jorgensen observes.

Sound evidence

     Presenting high-quality, admissible video evidence also reduces court-related costs and maximizes personnel. "When you have the suspect positively identified in the video, it's hard to argue with that," Jorgensen says. Thus, the agency reduces the time required to prepare for — or be in — court because the agents can provide clear evidence that is clear cut and objective.

     In contrast to imaging systems that record video to a computer's internal hard drive, XOA records independent video files directly to removable media, such as a USB hard drive or a thumb drive. This design preserves the original source of the evidence, eliminating the need for a computer's hard drive to be admitted as evidence. The digital video system can continue to be deployed for investigations, so it's never out of service because it's tied up in the legal process.

     But even a perfect video image would be worthless if cannabis leaves blew across the lens, obscuring the field of vision.

     The XOA system gives agents the ability to review video in the field, which also streamlines the investigation. Agents can make changes in the field and adjust controls or re-position the cameras on the fly to react to the suspect's behaviors or correct a problem.

Residential observation

     Jorgensen has also deployed Sur-Tec video surveillance systems in residential settings, typically to monitor activity related to methamphetamine labs. In one case, the neighborhood setting of a meth lab's stash house did not lend itself to place an agent for real-time surveillance. However, a wooded park across the street provided a perfect site for a video surveillance setup. Agents installed two cameras with different focal lengths to capture video from two angles. Jorgensen's team controlled the cameras from more than a block away. During the extended investigation they identified several individuals as well as vehicles, and captured video evidence of the suspects' activities.

     In addition to typical daylight settings, XOA cameras are designed to operate in some low-light settings, such as bright moonlight or lighted parking lots. For no-light settings, XOA-IRCAM's use of 940 nm infrared technology reduces exposure to countermeasures that would compromise the surveillance. (Most infrared systems use 730 nm light, thus making the camera system visible to the naked eye.)

     Video from low-light settings has helped investigators establish strategies for physical surveillance. "When we can determine a suspect's patterns over time, those patterns often help us plan physical surveillance and staffing," Jorgensen says. "We may be able to narrow the days or time of day we place an agent on site."

     The standard configuration of XOA uses a 10/100 Mb Ethernet hard-wired or wireless connection supporting remote operation and access. XOA's latest design also supports wireless transmission via an optional peripheral device (XOA-WiFi or Cell-COM) and an Internet connection. This feature gives operators the ability to adjust camera positioning and change control settings over a secure connection. If desired, investigators can receive e-mail notification, including a frame from the video, when movement triggers an "alarmed" camera to start recording. In addition, the operator can respond immediately and download video remotely to assess events in real time. The wireless Internet feature appeals to Jorgensen, who notes the emerging trend toward video-over-IP (VoIP) for surveillance.

     With XOA, Sur-Tec combines advanced digital video technology with a user-friendly design in a rugged, weatherproof, portable surveillance system. Manned or unmanned, XOA's high-resolution, motion-sensitive cameras collect raw data as the eyes and ears of investigators.

     From a technology and usability standpoint, XOA meets demanding surveillance needs. In terms of economic value, it frees up investigators, making the most of an agency's resources, both financial and staff. Most of all, its users say it delivers the evidence.

     In Jorgensen's opinion, Sur-Tec systems have provided a valuable, cost-effective solution for his agency.

     "We've had [about] an 80 percent success rate of getting someone on video, and 98 percent of the time we can identify the person," he says. "Once the prosecution sees the video, we rarely have had to spend time in court. I don't think we've ever been to trial when we used Sur-Tec systems."

     Todd Dupriest is vice president and chief operating officer of Sur-Tec Inc. He has more than 14 years of experience in security and video surveillance equipment design and manufacturing.