Small City Video Surveillance Cases Examined

By John Honovich, Published Oct 11, 2009, 08:00pm EDT

It is becoming increasingly common for smaller cities to deploy video surveillance in public places. Even with their smaller sizes, a number of challenges are still frequently faced. Plus, the ultimate benefit is often less than the terrorism stopping/crime fighting imagined.

Interviews with two Texas police departments on their video surveillance systems [link no longer available] demonstrates key issues involved.

Bryan, Texas

Bryan, Texas has about 70,000 residents. They started their public system in the downtown area with approximately 13 cameras (mixture of PTZs and fixed cameras mounted on the roof or sides of buildings). A key driver, according to the Police Department, was the availability of a recently deployed fiber system in downtown that they could use for transmitting camera feeds. While this is only available sometimes, the use of existing fiber networks is a significant benefit as it can reduce costs and risks in using wireless systems.

While there have been a number of positive uses for the system, it has not meet its original concept: "We were expecting from the system in terms of increased arrests and fines turned out to be we ended up using it for different type of public service." Specific public uses include, (1) finding a lost little boy during a public event and (2) finding vandals defacing public property. Such modest success stories are common among public video surveillance systems and should be carefully factored into projections of benefits.

The Bryan system has limited video surveillance sharing. They "worked out a communication system with local businesses equipped with CCTV where if a robbery were to occur, those business owners would download the image and then E-mail it out to all the other business owners." Given that the process is heavily manual, this is fairly low tech. However, it's likely the best a smaller city like Bryan could do with limited interoperability of systems.

Amazingly, the Police Department believes that they can eventually use the system to automatically find suspects using facial recognition. As they state, "A small part of your population commits most of your crimes. If you know who they are, you can biometrically link their pictures into the surveillance system. That surveillance system can biometrically scan everybody that’s going by. When they see that person, they can lock-in on them and give you an alert that that person is in a certain business area." Such a concept is more science fiction than reality. See our recent examination of facial surveillance deployment complexities.

McGregor, Texas

McGregor, Texas has a population of about 5,000. They recently deployed 4 public surveillance cameras with an intent to deploy 3 more. The police department does not cite any success stories for the system.

They did note the challenges in deploying cameras on street poles. "The state of Texas and its infinite wisdom would not let us place the poles where we needed to on East 84, which is the main road between Waco and McGregor. Evidently, there were some rulings that claimed it was an invasion of privacy and, therefore, they were not going to let us put a pole up on state property." This is an important logistical that can often delay city wide projects by months as legal issues and permits are determined.

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