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Law Enforcement Technology Video Surveillance

Written by Michael Stark

The availability of live video over the Internet and via other wireless sources has expanded greatly over the past several years. What makes these modern systems unique from earlier systems is that they are no longer just recording what the camera captures but are now capable of broadcasting a live video feed to any computer or smart phone with an Internet connection.

As the ability to upload live streaming video from cellular phones continues to increase, citizens will undoubtedly expect the police to take advantage of this capability, just as they have come to expect law enforcement to accept and deliver reports and other information via the Internet.

Law enforcement agencies across the globe have used cameras to monitor public areas for years. Currently there are more than 4 million surveillance cameras in England. London’s system has been in use for many years and recently has been reviewed for its efficiency. The report indicated that for every 1,000 cameras they solve one crime.

At the same time they estimate 70 percent of murder investigations have been solved with the help of video retrieved from the CCTV system. Of course, it is difficult at best to estimate how many crimes are prevented due to the cameras in an area. Like any other system or program, it needs to be reviewed, monitored and updated.

Many agencies in the United States have cameras placed in parks and around other city facilities. The problem with most U.S. systems is that many are not monitored. They are only utilized after a crime has occurred in order to attempt to identify suspects. CCTV cameras have also been utilized for many years in stores and businesses. The use of CCTV cameras to prevent crimes has been somewhat effective in dissuading shoplifters and petty thieves from committing crimes. However, as a crime-solving tool, the CCTV cameras have been highly ineffective.

Today, it is commonplace for cell phone users to record video on their phone and immediately upload it to Web based services such as YouTube. As video streaming technology continues to advance, the delay between the recording through the use of personal recording devices and uploading to the Web will be replaced with a real-time streaming video. Real-time video surveillance systems are increasingly being deployed and are seen as effective methods of addressing a wide range of security challenges in both the private and public sectors.

For instance, the Fontana School District’s camera system has allowed them to monitor large quad areas full of students and direct its security officers to potential problem areas. It is the advantage of viewing these areas from above that enables them to more efficiently deploy their limited resources.

Large wireless video systems can monitor hundreds of cameras. The cameras can be portable, mounted in fixed locations, or attached to mobile platforms. Larger agencies and law enforcement in other countries with systems already installed use monitoring stations to watch the camera feeds.

However, it is highly unlikely that any single individual would be capable of monitoring a system of a hundred or more cameras and employing a team of individuals would quickly become cost prohibitive. Watching two or three running videos on a single monitor without missing some details is next to impossible, so one can only imagine the difficulty of watching, say, 300 camera feeds at once.

This is where video analytics software comes into play. Video analytics software “watches” the feed from a camera or the playback from a recorder, and alerts the operator when certain patterns have changed. The software can be programmed to alert the viewer when the camera detects perimeter intrusions, traffic accidents, stolen vehicles or large crowd gatherings. These video analytic programs in effect act as a force multiplier allowing a few trained personnel to monitor hundreds of cameras.

This is the kind of technology that exists today: A fight in a park triggers a motion sensor activated camera that alerts an operator in a central command center. The operator who sends the live feed to the dispatcher views the live video from the scene. The dispatcher assigns the call and sends the live video feed to the officer’s mobile computer.

As the officers respond, they continue to watch the crime unfold through the real-time video feed. As officers arrive, the command center now receives a real-time video feed from the officer’s in-car camera and lapel camera. The officers arrive on scene and are able to apprehend the suspects. All of the video footage is stored and available for later use in court.

The use of widespread live video surveillance has two primary issues that limit its use. First, the infrastructure to send the video information from cameras to the monitoring systems is restricted by the size of the cable or wireless units and is referred to as bandwidth. As more information is sent through the system, the rate of flow is slowed.

A typical analogy used to describe this limitation is that of a garden hose. When a small volume of water is sent through a garden hose, it flows quickly. As the water volume through the hose increases, the rate of flow also increases up to the point that the volume of water it is capable of handling is reached. At that point any excess volume of water will back up. It is like sending more water through a fire hose than a garden hose.

A Strategy Analytics survey found the United States is currently ranked 20th in broadband services out of 58 countries. The median U.S. broadband speeds are less than 5 megabits per second. According to the Department of Commerce, 40 percent of communities in the United States lack high-speed or broadband Internet service.

This service would be imperative for someone wanting to send real-time video to law enforcement from a surveillance system. The FCC hopes to increase the number of households with high-speed Internet access to 100 million by 2020. The government is also looking to fund a new rural 4G LTE wireless network and a mobile communications system for fire, police and emergency responders.

The second hurdle is interoperability between systems. Video systems and the software used to view and operate them are not always compatible with other systems. A school district, stadium, mall or other business may have a state-of-the-art video surveillance system in place; however, due to software incompatibility, they may not be able to share that system with another agency.

The video surveillance industry today is working to establish standards for software and camera capabilities in order to address these incompatibility issues. Software manufacturers as well as third-party software vendors are also attempting to address compatibility differences.

For example, Cisco offers an “any-to-any-for-any” video surveillance and network infrastructure solution capable of providing vendor interoperability. Systems like this are capable of interfacing traditional CCTV systems with wireless systems as organizations transition from the old system to the new.

Through software applications, the real-time video will be capable of being sent to units from other agencies as well. Further into the future, links to private sector video will be commonplace. This will enhance the amount of data available to law enforcement when responding to an incident. Law enforcement will rely on real-time video in the same manner they currently do with voice communications.

Motorola sees the technology greatly improving the effectiveness and efficiency of first responders and others from command centers to the incident. Video surveillance systems can increase efficiency by providing supervisors and officers the ability to analyze a situation early on, which in turn allows for a better deployment of resources.

The use of this type of technology is evidenced by systems like the one recently installed by the Ontario, Calif. Police Department. Their system will stream live video from a camera mounted on a helicopter to a mobile command post on the ground. The system enables them to receive real-time information for firefighters and law enforcement to use on any critical incidents or day to day. This system is still in the installation phase and is expected to be operational in the upcoming months.

Financial issues also hamper the possibility of implementing this new technology. These hurdles aside, it is important for law enforcement to at least be knowledgeable in this technology. Its potential for abuse as well as the public’s expectation for law enforcement to utilize it is reason enough for a department to educate themselves.

The cost of video monitoring systems for mid-size agencies and municipalities can make their use prohibitive. Developing and maintaining these complicated systems can be expensive as well. With current budget constraints, it may be best to tap into the resources currently within the agency. Most agencies have officers who are tech savvy. These officers are the ones who seem to always have the newest phone and latest notepad. Tasking these officers to research the latest video systems and then presenting that information to staff could prove useful.

Partnerships with other entities such as school districts can also ease the funding burden. For example, Northern Michigan University partnered with nearby towns to expand cell towers so elementary schools, police and residents could access wireless networks capable of speeds fast enough to process streaming videos.

Grants can be another source of funding for these projects. The video system installed on Ontario’s helicopter cost $1.175 million. The money for this project came from a regional initiative grant and from homeland security funds. Saginaw, Mich. installed 17 video cameras at a water / skate park last year and plans to add more in other parts of the city. They will use a federal grant of $300,000 to pay for the additional cameras. Today there are still grants available through Homeland Security. In some cases, it may also be possible to at least partially fund a program through asset forfeiture funds.

In 2006, the Los Angeles Police Department deployed cameras in the Jordan Downs housing project. They found that by informing the citizens in the neighborhood the cameras were in place and recording them, they actually modified behavior in the neighborhood. During the first year of use, crime in Jordan Downs decreased by 40 percent and was down another 32 percent in the first quarter of the following year.

In another example, a 2006 study completed by Temple University on an 18-camera system installed in Philadelphia reported a 13 percent reduction in disorder crime (drug sales, assaults and vandalism) while violent crime rates were not affected.

Researchers from the Urban Institute in Washington, DC evaluated two neighborhoods in Chicago, Ill. where fairly high concentrations of cameras had been installed. They examined statistics for both neighborhoods and found that in one neighborhood drug, robbery, weapons offenses and overall crime had dropped significantly after the cameras were installed.

Yet in the second neighborhood, there was virtually no change in crime since the cameras were installed. The researchers were unable to identify specific reasons for the disparity, although they did note that, for every dollar spent on cameras, there was more than a $2 savings of money from crimes prevented.

Law enforcement is faced with many challenges regarding real-time streaming video. The cost of video monitoring systems for mid-size agencies and municipalities is a major concern. Police agencies need to keep up with available federal grants and lobby strongly for their current and future needs with their Congressman and other elected officials. These political relationships are an important component for law enforcement’s sustainability and future viability.

Whether it’s new technologies, or the development of new organizational or operational structures, law enforcement’s future will be sustained long-term with the sharing of innovative ideas that show how creative change results in solving crimes better. While it may be difficult to implement a large system today, creating a plan to build small programs that can be connected together in stages is a viable alternative.

Michael Stark is a Lieutenant with the Fontana, Calif. Police Department. He is a graduate of the 237th session of the FBI National Academy and Command College Class 48. He may be reached at mstark@fontana.org.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2011

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