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Surveillance Cameras Create Friction Among Philadelphia Officials

Disagreements have surfaced over how many cameras actually work and how often they're being monitored.

by Mensah M. Dean, Philadelphia Daily News / April 22, 2015

(TNS) -- Philadelphia's 250 police surveillance cameras in recent years have documented shocking crimes and helped convict the evildoers responsible for them. But just how many of those cameras are operational?

City officials say 93 percent are working and recording at any given time.

But City Controller Alan Butkovitz told City Council yesterday that one-third of the cameras are broken, and some that work aren't even being monitored by human beings.

Butkovitz said two reviews of the cameras by his office - in June 2012 and May 2013 - turned up the same results.

"One of the problems is nobody's watching the video as it happens in Philadelphia, anyway," Butkovitz said during a hearing for his office's proposed $8.3 million fiscal year 2016 budget.

"Citizens were assured that we could afford to have a lower level of police manpower because we'd have the greater efficiency of the technology. But really, the practice is to just look at the video after an incident happens to see if you can identify perpetrators rather than to see whether there's a real-time situation where you can deploy added force and maybe save somebody's life," he said.

Butkovitz added that the city "had absolutely no maintenance or response plan" for its cameras.

"It takes up to five days for the city to fix a camera," he said.

In response to a question from Councilman Curtis Jones, Butkovitz said the city of Baltimore had a strict 24-hour response time in which to fix its cameras.

Philadelphia director of public safety Mike Resnick said Butkovitz was wrong about the number of working cameras and the maintenance of the cameras, and was unrealistic about how the cameras should be monitored.

"The controller is absolutely incorrect. I have no idea what information the controller is looking at, but he is not looking at the truth, he is not looking at the facts," Resnick told reporters.

Resnick placed the number of operational cameras at 93 percent, the same number Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey cited during a Council hearing last week.

As for maintenance, Resnick said, for about two years the city has had a contract with a private company that troubleshoots and repairs cameras as soon as problems are detected.

In addition to the 250 city-owned cameras, the city has access to more than 4,000 others owned by SEPTA, Amtrak, universities and others, Resnick said.

Although all of the cameras are connected to the city's Real-Time Crime Center, where police monitor them, he said, there are limitations.

"No system has people sitting there watching thousands and thousands of cameras. You know how many people you would need to do that? It's unrealistic," Resnick said, adding that the cameras are still important tools for documenting and solving crimes.

©2015 the Philadelphia Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC