Philly's Cameras Cost 20x More Than Planned

Author: Carlton Purvis, Published on Apr 22, 2013

Last year, the City of Philadelphia commissioned a review of its multi-million dollar surveillance system. In the planning stages, the system's cost was estimated at around $3,000 per camera, but the actual cost so far has been $136,000 per functioning camera at $13.9 million, with an additional $3.2 million awarded after the original contract for replacement cameras, repairs and maintenance, the audit found.

According to the 30-page final report, more than half (53%) of the city’s 216 surveillance cameras weren’t working. Of 20 cameras randomly selected by auditors, only nine could actually provide video images. Ten of them needed to be repaired or weren’t in use for unreported reasons. Additionally, the portable overt digital surveillance systems (PODSS), which were supposed to be moveable throughout the city to cover crime hot spots, haven’t moved since installation because they are “too heavy.”

The cameras were deployed as part of a massive anti-crime initiative called Operation Safer Streets with the objective of making “Philadelphia neighborhoods safer by providing police with another tool for fighting crime” (the city does not have any system to asses the impact of surveillance cameras on crime and referred questions about crime statistics to the police department. The audit found no correlation between the number of cameras in an area and the number of shootings).

The Contract

We've requested the RFP and contract for the project. Until we can see it, most of the details of the original contract come from a Unisys press release from 2007. The contract was for $8.9 million and included installation of 250 cameras with an option to deploy an additional 250. 

Messy Records 

Purchase, installation and maintenance is overseen by the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology. Not only did the audit find that the OIT wasn’t maintaining records properly, but many cameras that were purchased were never installed. The city was using AXIS and Sony cameras which were both under one-year warranties, according to the report, but because of poor record keeping, OIT doesn’t know which cameras they are and may have paid for repairs and replacements of cameras under still warranty. Several cameras from the original contract are still sitting in a warehouse unboxed.

The City Controller’s Office released a statement saying the project had problems from the beginning, including a vendor who had to be fired from the job for “unsatisfactory performance.” That vendor was Unisys. That contract was cancelled. And the city finished installing many of the cameras on its own

Unisys said questions about the project should be directed to the city of Philadelphia repeating to us they have previously said about the contract: "Unisys is proud of the work the company performed under our contract with the City of Philadelphia ... Unisys fulfilled its obligations under the contact in 2009, after which the City took over deployment of the cameras."

The city says it has no plans to take oversight of the project from the OIT.


If the city is worried that TimeSight, the company that provided its video management software, ceased operations, it hasn't been mentioned in any reports. It's not clear if the city was aware of the status of the company at the time of contract or if camera malfunctions had anything to do with TimeSight software. 

Avoiding Questions

The OIT has been reluctant to answer technical questions about why the system doesn’t work. We contacted the office with a list of questions related to the system but both interviews were cancelled one day prior to their scheduled times. In February, city council met to discuss surveillance system ahead of a new report which has not been released. The controller’s office presented its findings, but no one from the mayor’s administration or the OIT made themselves available to speak at the meeting so there are still no clear answers for why so many cameras don’t work. 

The author of the audit told me he was only asked to look at the financial impact of the malfunctions, not the technical reasons behind them.

Huge Cost / Questionable Value

While city surveillance has become a hot topic in the wake of the Boston bombing, the extreme costs and significant issues in this project raise real concerns about the viability of such mega city designs.

Current Status 

After the meeting in February, a city spokesperson said only 155 cameras (70 percent) were working. That number was supposed to be 90 percent by last September. The city’s press office told us the new audit will be released “sometime this month.”


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