Thursday, January 7, 2010

D&C article (3/1/10) re: police cameras

Pam's note: At the end of this article, I noticed that the map shows only 2 cameras in our Lyell-Otis neighborhood. We brought in a grant for $250,000 and received promises of 10 initial cameras, with more to be added in the future. So, unless they are unmarked, we should be proud to be in a very desireable, low-crime area, and therefore, our property values will go up, as they should! We are safer than Park Avenue! HaHa! :)

Police cameras in Rochester get smarter
Brian Sharp • Staff writer • March 1, 2010

Those police surveillance cameras on the corner with the blinking blue lights have started getting a lot smarter, with software that can recognize hand-to-hand transfers of a drug deal, pan to the sound of gunfire or follow a fleeing suspect.

And, given problems with teens brawling at the Liberty Pole downtown, the nearest camera will count the number of people congregating and alert police if crowds reach a certain number. Or, if a group begins running to or from the scene.

Nearly two years after the Rochester Police Department launched its surveillance program, the city has 100 cameras with 20 more being deployed.With so many video channels, police are turning to sophisticated computer software to help monitor the video. The software is licensed for eight cameras, so far.

Software installation and training began last week."When I got hired, I had a radio with tubes," said police Lt. Michael Lesniak, who has been in law enforcement 27 years. "You had to turn it on and let it warm up for awhile. It had five channels."

On a computer in his downtown office, Lesniak recently pulled up live video from a street corner three miles across town and read the license plate off an Acura parked a block away from the camera.

"If you can imagine it, it probably can be done," he said.Cameras monitoring certain city property already can send out a text message to officers when on-site cameras detect trespassers. The plan is to tie in any alarm system linked to 911, so the nearest cameras can pan to that location when an alarm sounds. Police already have a test project operational at an unspecified bank.

Most police supervisors can pull up and direct surveillance cameras from computers in their squad cars, accessibility that soon might be extended to some officers' smart phones.
In addition to the visible cameras, police have some hidden cameras in the city. Police already have the ability to tap in to county park cameras and have expressed interest in linking to the City School District's 1,058-camera network as well.

Time for evaluation

For now, all the video feeds to a central command room at police headquarters on Exchange Boulevard downtown. Fliers of crime suspects hang on the command center walls. Reports on crime trends in city neighborhoods are routinely distributed.

Officers responding to a call near a camera can radio in and get an idea what is happening at the scene before they arrive.Cameras have caught a home break-in, a shooting and drug dealing.
Police credit the surveillance system for 203 arrests since mid-June, when statistics started to be collected. The department's camera unit, using what they saw on video, requested that officers be dispatched on average seven times a day during that period.

"We always said we would sit down and evaluate once we've had some run time," said George Markert, executive deputy chief of the Rochester Police Department. "I think we are at that point."

The system is built to handle 250 cameras and can be easily expanded. To date, the city has spent $2.8 million building it, some of that offset by grants. Cameras alone represent $1.7 million of the total.

The first phase of the new "video analytics" software will cost the city about $35,000."The original question came when these cameras were put up ... was there really a difference between that and a policeman standing on the corner?" said Gary Pudup, director for the Genesee Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"With a few cameras, the answer is probably 'no.'"Now you are talking about machines watching us? That brings it up to a different level."Any evaluation, Pudup said, should ask the question: How much is too much?

Neighborhood impact

In the Monroe County Public Defender's Office, lawyers can call up a Google map of police camera locations.The office is working on a procedure for getting video and having it certified so it can be used in court.

The expectation is that video will increasingly be submitted as evidence against defendants, but could be found to provide alibis as well, said Public Defender Tim Donaher. He is skeptical of software detecting hand-to-hand transfers, fearing it could provide justification to stop people who have exchanged nothing more than a handshake.

City Councilman Adam McFadden is also skeptical because he says many dealers have moved out of camera view. The only neighbor complaints he has heard about the cameras are from residents on out-of-view side streets now experiencing problems with crime.

"It's impacting some of our neighborhoods in a way we have to adjust and just be aware of," said McFadden, chairman of the Council's Public Safety, Youth and Recreation Committee.
Asked how many cameras still are needed, Markert said: "It's less than a camera on every corner, but the demand for these things from the neighborhoods is incredible."

Neighborhood requests are paired with crime data and other factors to determine where cameras should be located, Markert said.Sgt. Aaron Colletti, who oversees the surveillance system, envisions one day having a team of dedicated officers to deploy and make arrests.
"This thing has endless possibilities," Colletti said.

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