Court System Surveillance Challenges

By Carlton Purvis, Published Oct 21, 2013, 12:00am EDT

Tyco Integrated Security is contracted to do all the installation, maintenance and monitoring for the court system of a major U.S. city. They watch and maintain around 1800 cameras across 180 courtrooms. We talked to an operator about the day to day operations of the system, what it takes to keep the cameras running and what the most common problems and crimes are.

Why Tyco Monitors the System

“This system is so complex that it would be expensive for the courts to have to hire and train someone just to install the system, then people to maintain the system and then people to operate it,” our source says. It is more cost effective for the city to contract out all the tasks intead of possibly dealing with many different companies. 

Additionally, it is an arduous process to become an operator for the court system, he said. Because they are in the presence of public officials and because they are guarding government buildings, the screening process is strict. They are not only screened by Tyco, but also the U.S. Marshals.

A Typical Day For an Operator

A typical day for an operator consists of live monitoring for an hour, maintenance for an hour (including camera adjustments, cleaning and repositioning), and paperwork for an hour (ordering new parts, maintenance reports). This rotation continues for an 8-hour shift.

They are typically pulling footage everyday for investigations into complaints or, the most common incidents -- cell phone theft.

Most Common Crime

The number one reason footage is reviewed is for missing mobile phones. Either someone set their phone down and walks off without it, then claims it is stolen or someone actually does steal the phone.

Installation

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About 10 percent of the job is installation. This includes replacing cameras or upgrades to parts of the system. Many of the buildings are undergoing renovation so that is where most of the new installs are concentrated.

Maintenance

Areas undergoing renovation are also where a lot of maintenance, which comprises 60 percent of the job, is concentrated as well. “We work under the assumption that all of the cameras need to be working 24/7. So maintenance and repairs are always ongoing,” he said. There is also a planned maintenance schedule that is strictly adhered to.

Biggest Maintenance Issue

“A lot of it is destruction from other contractors [because of renovations]." Whether it’s power outages or something else, there are always issues that come from all the construction that bleed over into the security arena,” he said.

Another reason the work was contracted to Tyco was the need for someone who could be there all the time because outages are common from both weather and construction. The outages are particularly hard on the system because it puts the system in undiscoverable mode and cameras start to drop out for no reason. “Then you have to crash the system and restart it again,” he said.

Backup power was recently installed so that should alleviate some of the blackout problems.

Monitoring

The remaining 30 percent of the job he says is monitoring. The 1800 cameras are watched by 20-30 people -- a mix of Tyco employees and court security officers -- from a large control room. All of the cameras in the system can be monitored live, but not all cameras on the system are recording, but he says they have enough cameras laid out that “every footstep a person takes” in the courts is recorded.

Special Interest Areas

One of the areas where surveillance is most important is prisoner transport. “We videotape them from the time they get off the bus to when the get turned over to the Marshals from the Metro Police Department. Every stop of the way, even in the holding cells, there are cameras to make sure everything is done correctly,” he said. The cameras are used for both investigating claims against the Marshals and clearing them of accusations. Despite working alongside police officers, he says Tyco operates as a neutral party when it comes to crimes. “We just provide the video of what happened,” he said.

Cameras and VMS

The system uses Bosch fixed and PTZ cameras both inside and outside. “Ninety-six percent of the cameras are Bosch, but we do have some Pelcos and Honeywells,” he said. The system currently uses Bosch Video Management System v.4.5 [link no longer available] and OnGuard is being phased in.

Convenience Cameras

The system also has what he called convenience cameras. Those are cameras that allow a judge who is inside his chambers to see who is outside the door in the hallway.

Operator Frustrations

The system is not very intuitive for operators and he says it takes a few years to get used to all of the ways to find and use all of its features. Initially you have training from the manufacturer, which is excellent, but for the average person who doesn’t have a lot of experience it’s overwhelming,” he said. “The software has thousands of little choices ... but you learn over time there are far easier ways to do the same thing.”

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