Under Close Watch
In 2004, after observing a closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance project in the city of Westminster in London and a small citizen-led video surveillance project in Baltimore’s Greektown neighborhood, Baltimore’s Mayor Martin O’Malley, now the governor of Maryland since January 2007, explored the idea of harnessing video technology to fight crime. By mid-2005, O’Malley announced the first phase of the Baltimore CitiWatch program, with the opening of a state-of-the-art central control center. At the time, the city’s video surveillance system was one of the most advanced and ambitious central city surveillance programs in the United States. The program was established with Department of Homeland Security funds totaling several million dollars. Three years later, the system is expanding and continues to be effective. Now, with Mayor Sheila Dixon in office, the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology continues to drive the overall planning and implementation of the program, turning each completed project phase over to the Baltimore police, while assisting with ongoing maintenance.
As one of the nation’s most violent cities, Baltimore needed help in reducing crime. The 1,200-square-foot central command center, located in the Atrium Center, was just the beginning of the CitiWatch program. Now, close to 400 cameras, most mounted atop streetlight poles, provide continuous surveillance in downtown tourist areas, in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods and in five of the city’s public housing projects. The program’s goal is to enhance the safety and security of residents, workers, visitors, public buildings, educational institutions, healthcare facilities, cultural and entertainment attractions and other tourist venues.
Civilian staff in the Atrium Center view images on computer monitors and on a 60-ft.-wide projection wall. The Atrium Center monitors 50 cameras located throughout the immediate West Side area. The color, all-weather cameras are equipped with low-light and pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) capabilities. Members of the surveillance monitoring staff are trained in security and CCTV operations.
The CitiWatch Atrium Center has access to all project video feeds from the hundreds of other permanent PTZ cameras located throughout the five high-crime neighborhoods. The Atrium Center can also access video feeds from the housing project cameras. While the Atrium has access to all live and stored video data, the focus is on the West Side’s 50 cameras, and staff usually only view other feeds on request from other neighborhoods and/or housing monitoring stations.
Proactive monitoring at five neighborhood stations
In addition to the Atrium Center, Baltimore police have established five police station monitoring centers, where retired police officers use Ridgefield, N.J.-based DVTel’s Latitude NVMS (the network video management module of the intelligent security operations center) to provide continuous proactive monitoring from surveillance rooms. Camera coverage has expanded to include Baltimore neighborhoods along Monument Street, Greenmount Avenue and in Park Heights. All cameras record continuously at 30 frames per second (fps). Live video is viewed at 15 fps, and the city maintains an archive of 30 days of recording.
All permanent cameras are PTZ models located in high traffic or “hot” areas. Beth Hart, manager of CCTV for the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Information Technology says, “We’re actively looking for suspicious activity, and our monitoring personnel are skilled in knowing what to look for. Once they pick something up, they monitor live and conduct playback of the video. They are also in direct contact with the officers who are called to the scene. When those officers arrive, they receive a brief on what happened, who was involved and the possible next steps to take,” Hart says.
When staff members see something suspicious, they can immediately take control of that camera, zoom in and call the Baltimore police communications network, which in turn will dispatch a police car directly to the scene. Numerous violent acts have been successfully investigated since the program’s inception. They are often caught live so that monitoring personnel can effectively support police reaching the scene of an incident. In a recent example of proactive monitoring, the monitoring staff observed a man putting on a ski mask on a street corner. A car was immediately dispatched to the location, and the robbery was foiled.
A visit to the Eastern District monitoring station found Officer David Hare manning the computer monitors. It took only minutes for him to pull up multiple incidents of recent violent crimes that had been captured and investigated out of his district. Of the DVTel technology, Hare notes, “[It’s] very easy; anybody can do it. You need a bit more practice to manage the review and investigation aspects, but if you can’t operate this system, you shouldn’t be here.”
With literally thousands of arrests coming directly from video surveillance, Baltimore police estimate that violent crime is down by more than 15 percent in the areas covered by the project.
More eyes on the street
Tele-Tector of Maryland Inc., Columbia, Md., designed the fiber backbone of the system and served as project manager. Many of the city’s surveillance cameras and all of its housing cameras are wireless. “We don’t have optic fiber running under the streets with our expansion outside the main downtown area,” Hart says. “We cannot be trenching for blocks and blocks, so DVTel’s combination of wired and wireless technology was very appealing to us.” Wireless camera signals from groups of cameras are brought back to a fiber node, and then video signals travel by fiber back to the DVTel head end.
All camera feeds are available at the central command center via an 800-MHz ring around the city, to which all the neighborhood and housing cameras are connected. The fiber ring has a portion solely dedicated to surveillance use.
In addition to the permanent PTZ cameras, Baltimore police have another innovative tool in their surveillance arsenal, the Portable Overt Digital Surveillance System (PODSS) cameras from RMS Technology Solutions, Buffalo Grove, Ill. The temporary, “in-a-box” cameras can be deployed in a short time to monitor any location. A visit with Baltimore Police Officers Ed Mendez and John Corona found them monitoring a PODSS camera fixed high upon a light pole focused on Mama’s Grocery in the Eastern District. Lt. Matthew J. Bauler, who has been with CitiWatch since its inception, says that in the days prior to the camera installation, the area outside of Mama’s Grocery was teeming with drug activity. Once the PODSS unit was installed and the blinking purple lights on top of the cameras were visible, the camera feed showed no one outside of the store.
Officers Mendez and Corona demonstrated how they are able to park their squad car a few blocks away from the PODSS unit and, by maintaining line-of-sight for their wireless receiver, monitor the activity shown by the camera from within their car. The police department’s 107 PODSS units receive power from the light pole and come equipped with a digital hard drive that can be swapped out for downloading and review.
The future of CitiWatch
“I see the program getting bigger. I can’t tell you how many calls we get asking for cameras in their neighborhood,” Lt. Bauler says. The city is looking at additional neighborhoods in which to add to the program, including Cherry Hill and the SW District.
Hart adds that the Mayor’s office is working on developing a lengthier training program so that eventually it can be added to the police training curriculum to make sure all officers understand and learn how best to utilize CitiWatch and get the most out of the technology. As technology becomes more advanced and funds become available, Baltimore will look at expanding the central monitoring function to effectively augment neighborhood-monitoring stations and improve central command-and-control.
The CitiWatch program has been a success to date, and the future looks equally promising for Baltimore and its citizens. Several thousands of incidents are now caught on video. There are more effective prosecutions and fewer false crime reports. Police patrols are more focused, which translates into improved productivity, and with all of the new developments, there is greater citizen cooperation throughout the city.