Several years ago, when the concept of implementing a citywide surveillance system first occurred to us at Clovis (Calif.) Police Department, it seemed like no big deal. Plug in a few cameras; it’ll be easy. Not so.
Let me tell you a little about Clovis. We’re a community of a little fewer than 100,000 people spread across 23 square miles, and residents and local police officers pride themselves on being in the safest city in Central California. We keep the city safe by taking proactive steps to avert problems, and using closed-circuit television (CCTV) is one of our methods. During good budget times, the police department is staffed at 116 sworn officers. Unfortunately, that number is dwindling because of the current budget crisis.
And with technology, as you know, budget is a huge issue. Cities can spend enormous amounts of money to no effect if they aren’t careful. The other side of the coin: Cities and agencies can successfully leverage their financial resources if they use technology wisely and at the same time get others to help pay the tab.
Define Your Goal
A major factor in assessing the effective use of technology is asking, “What exactly does your community expect the technology to accomplish?”
In Clovis’s first foray into CCTV, about eight years ago, we were attacking a potential problem we felt was coming our way because of the construction of a new freeway through the city. We anticipated that the new freeway would provide an increased opportunity for crooks to visit the city, commit crimes and leave. To proactively battle this potential threat, we installed eight cameras, four to the east and four to the west, adjacent to a freeway exit. The intention was to archive video of traffic entering Clovis from that exit so we could retrieve it later and identify the vehicle and its occupants if something happened.
Although our vision was on the mark, the technology wasn’t there yet, and we were able to get a useful image only 10% of the time. Not what I would describe as a raging success. The laundry list of problems ranged from design issues to environmental factors beyond our control. Our lack of success could have been averted if we had performed a better and more complete analysis of all the issues we would later have to deal with. I won’t bore you with all the details, but one example I never imagined was the impact of the sun’s reflection on the asphalt, which resulted in poor image quality. If I had done a better job at my homework, I would have known about this factor. Part of our problem was that we relied on what the vendor “promised” instead of doing our own legwork.
So define what it is your city is trying to accomplish, and perform a complete analysis that allows you to look at all of the possible problems. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. If you’re going to implement a CCTV system, look at other cities that have them and replicate those systems. A cautionary note: Remember that what works in one environment might not work in another, so perform your analysis based on your circumstances.
Anyway, on with the story.
Although not particularly successful for our original purpose, the system had a side benefit that we had partially anticipated. The cameras were all pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ), and we had installed the monitors and the ability to control the cameras in our communications center. The freeway exit was located near busy city locations, so the dispatchers and officers began to use the cameras as a response tool for bar fights, suspicious subjects and vehicles, motor vehicle crashes, as well as any other type of in-progress call located near the cameras.
After a time, officers started to ask dispatchers what they could see prior to on-scene arrival, and pretty soon the narcs arranged to do dope buys within camera range. With this success, we began putting cameras in other locations that made sense based on calls for service. And as we did this, the learning curve continued.
Right Design & Install
Another factor that created difficulties was our design specifications—or more accurately the lack of them. We had already been burned by one vendor, and although we are a decent-size city with resources, we didn’t have anyone in-house with the expertise to build a CCTV system. So we had to figure it out as we went along. In some cases, we pulled cat 5 and co-ax cables ourselves. We also wrote the bid specs to have outside contractors install infrastructure.
Multiple issues can arise later if the design isn’t well thought out. One example concerns the long-term maintenance of your system and associated costs. Ever heard of SC, FC or ST fiber connectors? Well, me neither. So when asked what kind of connections I wanted, I really didn’t care as long as they worked. This choice created a problem with standardization later on. We didn’t create a design standard early on and, later, had to order specialized adapters that were more expensive and took more time to get.
Labeling is another big deal. If not done properly, your city will end up paying someone $100 per hour to identify something that should have been identified when it was initially installed. Unless you spec it, the vendor isn’t going to do it. There’s a host of issues like this that must be considered.
Although the police department had an initial interest in CCTV, as time progressed, we’ve found that others do as well. Partnering with local businesses has saved the police department a tremendous amount of money, while at the same time allowing us to build out an extensive system that was largely funded by others.
One condition for some new developments is to connect to our CCTV system. But we’ve found that the best approach is to develop a partnership with a business’s decision maker rather than make the CCTV tie-in a requirement. We invite them to the police department, give them a tour of the system, show them how participating will help them and generally receive buy-in. The business owner sees that having a camera that police can access benefits them and us.
For a successful partnership to occur, flexibility is necessary when systems built by different manufacturers are selected. Although our system was initially all analog, we’ve entered into the digital world over time and will very soon have a nearly complete Internet protocol (IP) system that retains the analog switch. With the hybrid approach, we get the best of both worlds—the bulletproof experience of analog and the flexibility of IP.
This digital evolution has also been challenging, to say the least, because there are huge issues when dealing with video in an IP environment. We have also had tremendous help from Pelco, a company in our backyard, during all stages of our system’s growth.
To date, we have partnered with the Sierra Vista Mall, a shopping center of about 700,000-square feet; Target Corp.; two local banks; our local school district; and the Clovis Veterans Memorial District, a local government agency. Two other major partners are currently waiting in the wings and have agreed to participate in the system when they break ground. They are Wal-Mart and Red Rock Ventures, which is a commercial developer.
Developing these partnerships takes effort and patience, but it’s worth the time because the private sector is funding the project, and you get to use it for public safety purposes. Our largest partner is actually other city departments. Wherever there’s new city construction, cameras go with it. Cameras were not on other city departments’ radar prior to the construction of our surveillance system. We approached other city staff, showed them the system and invited their participation.
Clovis has a skate park from which the police department gets a large number of calls for service. Recreation paid for the park’s cameras. Our newest fire stations are also near locations where we get calls for service; they paid for cameras in their construction costs. The Planning Department, using grant funding, bought and installed bronze statues and wanted cameras for security. Planning funded the cameras, and we use them as a response tool. Nearly every piece of critical infrastructure—reservoirs, well sites, the waste water treatment plant, the surface water treatment plant, etc.—have surveillance cameras, and, in most cases, we can use them as a response tool.
Final Thoughts & Tips
We have grown our initial project from eight cameras to a system of more than 180 in an eight-year period. From this growth, Clovis PD has found the use of cameras to be an effective tool in the delivery of service to our community. We’ve captured video of shootings, a pursuit that’s a running gun battle with a felon shooting at a police officer and other felonies, but I try to emphasize the more common issues the system addresses because, in my opinion, that’s where it really matters in the long term. How many officers should go to an in-progress brawl? Who was at fault in the traffic crash? Who was responsible for the vandalism? Did officers really use excessive force in that incident? And on and on.
In closing, a few suggestions if your community wants to go the way of CCTV:
- Define exactly what you want to accomplish, and analyze your circumstances in sufficient depth so that your system will be effective;
- Evaluate multiple locations with in-place CCTV systems before selecting your system;
- Select one integrator to avoid finger pointing;
- Make sure the system is scalable;
- Seek partners to help fund and expand the system;
- Make sure your written policy addresses appropriate system use, privacy issues, auditing and video retention; and
- Train your staff on the system and your policies before deployment: You don’t want your video clips on YouTube.