Montgomery, Ala., Will Thwart Crime Through Intelligence Hub

A network of cameras that feed directly into the police department’s Strategic Technology and Resource center is offering new perspective on incidents as they happen. Officials say the program takes the place of 50 officers.

by Kirsten Fiscus, Montgomery Advertiser / February 5, 2019
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(TNS) — The number of video surveillance eyes in the sky likely won't change much, but the Montgomery Police Department new "STAR Watch" program plans to include all those vantage points into one network, allowing officers to better see the city and crime.

"I welcome you to the STAR Center," Mayor Todd Strange said behind a lectern in the depths of the department's station on North Ripley Street. "It's our eyes in the sky. I did a little extrapolation and I think this center takes the place of 50 officers, just right off the bat. It's a time saver, it's instant access to what's going on."

In the center, screen panels stretched across one wall of the room while desktop computers filled the floor space. As Strange spoke during a news conference announcing the latest in policing technology, customers at nearby businesses, already participating in the network, could be seen walking through parking lots.

The STAR center, which stands for strategic technology and resource center, boasts the latest video technology with an encrypted system which will exclusively provide access to police. It's costing the city less than $50,000, which was awarded to the Montgomery Police Department through a Department of Justice grant.

"It will be in this room," Sgt. Alan Burr, an officer who will oversee the center, said during the conference. "We're not sharing this to some random voyeuristic anybody."

"You won't be able to get it on neighborhood uncut," Strange said.

Strange estimated that currently there are about 20 to 30 businesses already signed on with the project, about 10,000 cameras across every school in the county and another two to 3,000 more on the streets on Montgomery.

"Yesterday, we had a domestic violence situation where a woman fled and sought safety at a school," Strange said. "She had a firearm with her. With this system, and access to the cameras in the schools, we can better determine the level of threat to students."

Montgomery's system is modeled after a similar one in Mobile, operating for the past year and a half. Ronald Sams, director of the Montgomery Department of Public Safety, said he and officers have been coordinating closely with Mobile before launching the program.

"What the city of Mobile did, they worked with their local judges and made sure they weren't violating anyone's civil rights," Sams said. "The more you do this kind of thing, the more proficient you are at doing it. We're just beginning and we know we'll learn a lot."

In practice, when 911 dispatches an officer to an incident, be it theft or gun violence, another officer in the center can access cameras around the incident. Officers, Burr said, will be able send screen grabs of the video to officers on the ground, providing an immediate, reliable image of a suspect.

On the chance an officer in the center catches a crime in the act on one of the live feeds, they will have the ability to dispatch directly to patrol officers instead of going through 911.

It's not clear if a misdemeanor crime witnessed on one of the live video feeds in the center, can trigger an arrest by a patrol officer. Arrests for felony crimes are different, according to state law.

"Under Alabama laws of arrest, to arrest for a misdemeanor, you have to witness the crime. Misdemeanors have to be witnessed," he said. "The question comes up, if you can make an arrest after witnessing a misdemeanor live on camera, that's something we're going to work with our local district attorneys and judges."

Police are looking to include homeowners associations, with cameras around communities, and security cameras belonging to residents to the network.

"We're just looking for exterior cameras, cameras with a public view," Capt. Regina Duckett clarified about residential participation. "We're not looking for a view into people's homes."

Residents or businesses who wish to offer access to their cameras or simply want more information, can email starcenter@montgomeryal.gov or call 625-2532.

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