An Eye On CRIME

Using public surveillance cameras to capture homicides and other crimes.


"Our program will be high visibility, high profile, as we want everything right out in the open," says John Gaittens, the Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner for Administration and Technology.

Gaittens goes on to say the department has installed signs that explain the area is under video surveillance. They have instituted policies and procedures that ensure cameras don't record above street level. The pan-tilt-zoom cameras are at street level and placed so they can't view anything on the second floor and above.

"We don't want to be invasive and we don't look into windows," he says. "Basically, the cameras are set to see what you would see if you were standing on the street."

In Pennsylvania, the police don't use sound recording, only video imaging, as they would be subject to wiretap provisions and require a warrant if recordings were utilized. Although the ACLU has reservations about the applications of the cameras, there is little opposition to the program.

Gaittens says there are three basic things the surveillance cameras can accomplish. The first is they serve as a crime deterrent. Second, cameras aid police response, as they are linked to police dispatch. When dispatch gets a job on the screen that pertains to an auto accident with injuries or a fight on the highway, for instance, where the two pilot cameras are located, they can contact the people monitoring the cameras and ask what they see.

They may report the highway is clear, but can see down the block at 6th and Girard and there appears to be an auto accident at that location. So even before an officer has been dispatched, there is confirmation of an incident and this helps dispatchers send a patrol car to the right location.

Philadelphia has assigned both uniform personnel and civilians to monitor the cameras in police headquarters. The personnel monitoring the camera might see something that dispatch is not aware of, so they will contact the console directly and report the situation and send a car to the scene. They also will be able update the officer as he or she is enroute.

The third aspect is evidentiary value for cases where crimes have already been committed, such as the McDermott and Byers homicide cases. With the cameras, the police have a video record of what happened.

"In many cases, the camera tends to be the best witness," Gaittens says. "The tape won't be intimidated and change its story."

Gaittens points out the proper utilization of cameras will be very beneficial. It's not a magical cure, he warns, but a very good tool. And, as the technology improves and the pixilation increases, the clarity of the photo will get better. He says Philadelphia plans to increase its pilot program to include a couple of schools and will deploy mobile cameras, called Pods, in a couple of high-crime neighborhoods.

Philadelphia is utilizing this technology as a "city" project rather than a police department initiative. The project is being organized through the city managing director's office. There are different city departments involved, including police, public property and streets. The plan is to use the cameras not only for law enforcement, but also major events, crowd control, and traffic and homeland security issues. The city officials see many potential uses for the cameras. Funding may come in part from homeland security and narcotics forfeiture programs.

Planning for the future

The committee recently sent out a request for information on the Internet, asking vendors to send recommendations. It asked such questions as: How would you set up a surveillance program? What are the best practices? It hoped to learn from other people's mistakes. Several vendors responded to the questionnaire.

The city now has a request for proposal on the Web. Vendors have offered diagrams of how they would set up the program, laying out what kind of technology would be used, type of software, monitoring, and all the technical aspects of the program, such as the pixilation, zoom factor, recording and archiving. It has have documented how it will integrate the system and most important, how much the system will cost.

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