In the Public Eye
It may just be one of the biggest trends in security. Amidst terrorist bombings and rising crime, the camera is moving out of the warehouse and office building and onto the streets. Today, more state and local governments are creating networks of cameras that become unblinking eyes that monitor downtown business districts and busy intersections and deter drug dealers from preying on city housing projects.
The use of cameras in public places has gotten a boost from rapidly developing technology that has finally made the creation of wireless networks both practical and — to some extent — more affordable. This trend has also been driven by a greater public acceptance of being in the eye of the camera.
“More and more, there has been a shift, I think, away from the huge concerns about privacy in the public and toward a much more welcoming attitude about having cameras,” says Mike Fergus, director of Video Evidence Projects with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
A worldwide trend
Fergus says that the United States is beginning to assume attitudes more in line with those in Great Britain, which leads the world in the number of public closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems. Cameras were installed in English cities to deal with a rash of Irish Republican Army-inspired terrorist attacks and proved valuable when suicide bombers struck London’s subway and bus lines in July 2005.
“The public welcomes them as a safety tool,” Fergus adds.
Latin America has also recognized the value of cameras with approximately 90 cities establishing surveillance systems. Now cameras are common sights on street corners.
“These folks learned very quickly that they could really deter crime, especially in town centers and important areas across a municipality, by deploying CCTV solutions,” says Mariann McDonagh, executive vice president of global marketing for Verint Systems Inc., Melville, N.Y., a provider of wireless video software systems.
In recent years, an estimated 40 cities in the United States have installed public safety networks with most incorporating CCTV in their systems. These include major metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Minneapolis and New York City. Another 150 cities are at planning to install some kind of network, according to McDonagh.
Cameras are already fulfilling a variety of law enforcement functions. Motorists in many cities large and small have seen cameras at traffic lights that photograph the license plates of red light runners. Those caught by the cameras typically receive a ticket in the mail for their indiscretion.
The Houston Police Department has 50 such cameras at intersections, along with other cameras to monitor the illegal dumping of garbage. The number in Chicago and New York City runs into the hundreds.
Wireless technology choices
For governments considering setting up a wireless network, one of the first questions is: What kind of technology is needed to run a video system with multiple cameras? Many cities set up Wi-Fi, which was originally a brand licensed by the Wi-Fi Alliance to describe the embedded technology of wireless local area networks (WLAN) based on the IEEE 802.11 specifications. Use of the term has broadened and is generically used to describe the wireless interface of mobile computing devices, such as laptops, using local area networks (LANs). The more robust next-generation WiMAX system provides wireless data over longer distances in a variety of ways, from point to point links to full mobile cellular type access.
A third wireless choice is the so-called mesh networks. This system functions as a way to route data, voice and instructions between nodes, allowing for continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths. If a truck pulls in front of a node or a node is damaged, the data can “hop” from node to node until it reaches the proper destination. If all nodes are connected to each other, it is called a fully connected mesh network. These networks differ from other systems in that the component parts can all connect to each other via multiple hops, and they generally are not mobile.
The value of cameras has long been apparent to law enforcement. Consider the infamous Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. A key piece of evidence was captured by a video camera in the lobby of an apartment building across the street. The image showed a Ryder rental truck pull up to the building minutes before the explosion. That image gave authorities one of the clues they needed to track down the perpetrators.
A camera set up to record automobiles moving through a car wash in Sarasota, Fla., caught the abduction of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia. Her body was discovered several days later, but images from the camera linked a local mechanic named Joseph P. Smith to her disappearance. He was eventually sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of the little girl.
Housing authority success story
The Rockford (Ill.) Housing Authority maintains 2,005 properties throughout a city of 150,000 people — the second largest in Illinois. To combat a rising crime rate that was being fueled primarily by outsiders entering the properties, the management installed a system of cameras running over a mesh network supplied by Los Gatos, Calif.-based Firetide Inc.
The housing authority purchased 16 wireless cameras and deployed four to each of the developments. The units consisted of a camera provided by Vicon Industries, based in Hauppauge, N.Y., inside a bulletproof box. The camera is connected to other cameras on the network and images can be viewed from within the manager’s office and are available to police and the housing authority’s office.
On weekends, a steady stream of non-residents come driving through the properties which are laid out in what Paul Hackerson, director of management services for the Authority, describes as “a McDonald’s format.” Straight, neatly aligned streets allow for quick in-and-out by drivers.
“Recognizing that 75 percent of our crime is committed by non-residents, we put our cameras on the streets, and they have a flashing blue light on top that we can turn on or off, and each has a Rockford City Police sticker on it,” he explains. “What we are hoping for, and it has worked, is that they don’t come up to our property to buy dope.”
The cameras have become a management tool for the Authority, according to Hackerson, who is in charge of police and security, leasing and maintenance within the housing authority.
“I can go online, bring up our cameras and look at any one of our properties throughout the city. I can choose to look from the perspective of ‘what are those two guys standing on the street doing?’ or I can look at it as ‘why are those trash cans still out?’” Hackerson says.
By using a mesh network, the Authority was able to obtain widespread coverage for its housing units without the costs associated with hardwired systems.
“Since it is an Ethernet infrastructure, you could deploy CCTV or Internet protocol (IP) video cameras, and it could give you citywide or business district-wide video surveillance,” says Manish Chanda, Firetide’s product manager.
In the past, if a city wanted to set up a public CCTV network, it might have meant digging up city streets to run fiber from place to place at a high cost in terms of both dollars and disruptions. Today, advances in wireless broadband have replaced the fiber with transmitters and receivers, allowing networks to cover a much wider area.
“A big piece of the expense is how to get that video back to a central location,” says Mike Doble, chief executive officer of the Public Safety Broadband Consortium. “So wireless makes the most sense.”
Networks for police, fire and public safety can also be deployed when cities roll out networks to serve local citizens as well.
“In many cases, there are lot of municipal bids out there where the cities are requiring both the applications to run on the same typical network,” Chanda says. “So either it will start out from the municipal side with the public access network and they will want the public safety application to roll out on it, or the other way around.”
Rolling out a network to carry high quality video from multiple cameras can present technical challenges, one being bandwidth. Even the ability to transmit large amounts of data can be quickly maxed out if too many images are all being monitored at once or if large streams of data are being routed back to a central server for analytics.
“The problem is that as you get into surveillance applications, people want to get to multi-mega pixel — they want to be able to not get a tiny picture but one that is 1900×1280 so that they can zoom in on that picture and get the license plate or do facial recognition,” says Bob Ehlers, San Luis Obispo, chief executive officer of Calif.-based HauteSpot Networks Corp. “To move that much data over wireless makes you at odds with how much bandwidth you have available.”
Authorities are finding a greater number of applications for Wi-Fi and public safety broadband from catching speeders at intersections to monitoring buildings to putting cameras on water towers and along gas pipelines and electric distribution stations.
“You name it and people want to put cameras there,” Ehlers says. “At the same time they want faster frame rate, and they want higher resolution with bandwidth. These networks are collapsing under it.”
All these demands ultimately require some form of compromise. Frame rates or ubiquity of coverage have to be reduced. It may not be possible to simultaneously look at the number of cameras you might like to see.
“You don’t have the bandwidth to bring back all those images,” Ehlers adds.
The need to save bandwidth has led to innovations such as server-based analytics, in which a video image is brought back from a remote image source to a central repository so a processor can analyze it for motion detection or facial recognition. The processor can also give orders to the camera to move around for a better view.
To get all that video back to the servers requires a great deal of bandwidth. A more recent innovation is analytics at the edge, in which image analysis and processing is moved out to the camera itself, creating so-called “smart cameras” that can perform some of the same functions once required of servers, but offer new levels of scalability while using less bandwidth. Thanks to greatly increased processor speeds, this software can be run on the camera which will only send specific kinds of information back to a central location.
When the alarm sounds that something is going on, police and fire personnel often speed to the scene of an incident with little advance knowledge of what is going on. With the rollout of these systems, they now have the option of tapping into a network and viewing live images from the scene.
Video cameras in police vehicles have become commonplace. They monitor events such as traffic stops and can be used as evidence in court. Now these images can be accessed in real time by a central station or even other officers responding to a call.
“The problem, as has been the case for so many decades, is law enforcement and first responders in our nation have a serious problem with interoperability,” says Laura Owen, president and chief operating officer of Lenexa, Kan.-based ICOP Digital Inc. a leading provider of in-car video for police.
That problem was tragically illustrated during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when police, fire and EMTs could not share on-the-scene information.
Companies such as ICOP are developing and marketing single platform suites of products and software that are able to solve the problem of interoperability. That opens up the possibility of different departments being able to talk to each other, but also to share video images. Cameras have also improved in terms of their ability to handle data and their optical quality. IP cameras combine a full-function camera with an IP video transmitter/receiver in one unit that can be connected to an IP Ethernet network. Significant cost savings can be achieved by employing the integrated camera units in place of traditional analog video cameras and a separate IP transmitter and receiver unit. These cameras can be powered by Power-over-Ethernet adaptors, further reducing installation costs.
Even as technology has moved forward, many localities are still using analog cameras for reasons of cost and interoperability.
“Instead of having an IP-based camera, we have a lot of analog cameras and we put an encoder at the site to convert it over to IP,” Doble says. “There are just a lot more analog cameras that are out there on the market, and we usually put a camera on the street light and it has an encoder that converts it over to IP and then that goes over some kind of wireless network that we install.”
Along with better cameras and high speed networks, localities are also beginning to integrate other types of technology into the system. Another innovation that can extend the ears of police is a firearm shot detection system. These systems include one or more sonic sensors that are able to pick up sounds having a characteristic frequency or frequencies like those of a firearm shot. When activated, they transmit a signal alerting authorities that someone is firing a weapon and giving the location.
In addition, end-users don’t have to roll out vast and costly wireless systems. Those seeking a more modest start can use so-called nail-up systems that include a pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera inside a box powered by a battery and equipped with a cell phone transmitter.
“We can go and literally nail this to a wall and it will run for about a week before you have to change the batteries, and you can monitor it live using the cell phone transmission,” Fergus says. “That is really designed for short term tactical use, if you’ve got what police would refer to as a ‘hot spot investigation.’”
Other innovations include a self-leveling camera and transmitter that can be thrown through a window or rolled into a room to provide authorities with video of a situation before sending in personnel.
It’s not just the police who are pushing the use of cameras. Business owners and merchant groups representing business districts are now partnering with governments to set up these systems.
Houston officials are considering a proposal for the police department to place crime monitoring cameras in the city’s lower Main Street area. With its trendy restaurants and nightclubs that have grown up around the new baseball stadium, the area has become a major destination of both visitors and locals alike. Business owners have offered to purchase the cameras in exchange for the police monitoring.
“Obviously this raises all sorts of policy, liability, manpower and political issues that have to be addressed between the municipality and the police department, but there is a growing trend toward this,” Fergus says.