Surveillance cameras orderedSeated at a console inside the Police Administration Building late last Tuesday, a police officer was panning his video-surveillance camera at Broad Street and Susquehanna Avenue when he saw three men approach a Temple student.
In the next moment, they surrounded and robbed the student. Just as quickly, the officer alerted police radio, and officers arrived within minutes to make arrests.
That camera is one of 18 installed as part of a pilot program last year that have been responsible for 60 arrests. Yesterday, Mayor Street announced an $8.9 million contract with Unisys that will add within a year 250 more wireless cameras across the city.
"Video-surveillance cameras are not a panacea," Street cautioned. But he said they're a "vital tool" in improving the safety of Philadelphians.
The first cameras under the new program will be installed at 52nd and Market streets, according to Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Gaittens. So far, Gaittens said, the department has about a thousand locations recommended for surveillance.
The initial focus for the cameras will be to deter violent crime in commercial areas of heavy pedestrian and vehicle traffic but also near schools, recreation centers and transportation hubs.
Street said the siting of cameras will be on the basis of a "data-driven" process. "It won't be done on the basis of who is friends with whom," he said.
City Council members Darrell Clarke and Donna Miller pushed the administration to develop the surveillance program. They visited other cities, including Baltimore and Chicago, to see how their video-surveillance systems work. Their initiative was supported by a May 2006 voter initiative.
Though the one-year contract with Unisys is for 250 cameras, Clarke said the city task force that studied the issue recommended installation of 1,000 cameras. He said he's prepared to introduce legislation to fund more cameras.
Gaittens said that a new control center is under construction at Police Headquarters. There will be 15 to 18 consoles where officers will be able to observe up to 32 camera locations.
Though police officers on limited or restricted duty are now manning the system, Gaittens said the city is designing a position to allow civilians to monitor cameras.
"We're going to have our camera monitors be in direct contact with police radio," he said. "Later, if we have the money, we may stream video directly into the . . . police cars."
Although the system is aimed at suppressing violent crime, Gaittens said there are many quality-of-life issues, from drinking and prostitution to traffic control that can be targeted with the new technology.
The system is based on wireless technology, linking the camera to a base-station tower that transmits to a data center where the tape will be stored and available for use by police investigators and prosecutors. Monitors will view the video in real time.
Although a camera can change behavior in a neighborhood, Street said, "You also need a careful plan of policing. If you are not careful, people will just go around the corner . . . so video cameras are not a stand-alone activity." *