Wireless Patrol

The Dallas Police Department turns to wireless technology to combat downtown crime.

by / July 5, 2007

The Dallas Police Department was having trouble covering its growing downtown area. The department of 3,500 found it difficult to man the streets at all hours of the day. So in January, the city - the state's third-largest - installed 40 wireless surveillance cameras that now help police cover 30 percent of the downtown district with the hopes of preventing would-be lawbreakers and catching those brazen enough to still commit crime.

"Our goal was to reduce crime in the downtown business district and combat the perception of inadequate safety measures in the area," said Dallas Deputy Police Chief Tom Lawrence, who oversaw the project. "We were pleasantly surprised at the speed of implementation and the tremendous support from the business community."

In the Central Business District, where according to The Dallas Morning News, there was a 32 percent decrease in crime from the first quarter of last year, the cameras operate on wireless technology that not even the Police Department had a complete grasp of at first.

"While we did not go into the project with the concept of wireless," Lawrence said, "the benefits quickly became obvious: The mesh enables quick setup of the network without a complete overhaul, while providing excellent bandwidth and security for video streams."


Put to the Test

Once the idea came about, the Police Department began to test various camera surveillance systems and noticed decreases in crime with only a few hours of actual surveillance per day. The department then set out to find a vendor for the project, and chose one in its own backyard: Dallas' BearCom, a provider of wireless communication devices.

In 2004, the Police Department performed a surveillance study. "They learned a lot from this exercise," said Kent Huffman, chief marketing officer at BearCom. "They then went to companies, and BearCom came with a different solution than everyone else."

That challenge involved how to transmit nonstop, capturing video footage 24 hours a day, 365 days a year from 40 cameras. In other words, the Police Department had to figure out how to record all of its video without clogging up all of the communication lines and bandwidth in the city.

BearCom's solution was to go wireless. Rather than congest the department's communication backbone, or dig up lines for cable, which would make downtown traffic an even bigger nightmare, the company decided to simply install the cameras on top of light posts and on buildings, without the wires.

"This eliminated a lot of problems," Huffman said. 

With an $840,000 donation from the Meadows Foundation - a group devoted to helping the people of Texas - to cover costs and maintenance for the first two years the Police Department and BearCom started assembling the pieces.

Firetide Inc., a California-based company, helped connect the cameras with 32 mesh nodes. These nodes link to one another wirelessly to form a network that connects all of the cameras. Should one link be blocked or lose power, the video signal will still go through without interruption, via another node.

"Without Firetide's wireless mesh, it would have been too difficult and cost-prohibitive to install the cameras where they were needed," said Jeff Murray, the project manager for BearCom, who oversaw the design and installation. "The mesh network forms itself, making installation even easier. It creates many alternative wireless links so the network is extremely reliable. Even if a wireless link is blocked or a node loses power, the video will always go through without any interruption in service."

With wireless devices common in the downtown area, Firetide had to avoid interference, so it used a special frequency licensed by the FCC only for public safety agencies.

The project also utilized services from

BridgeWave Communications, a gigabit wireless solution provider, which provided seven units to help transfer the video network to the stations where the video is monitored.


Less Downtown Danger

With the installation complete, the Police Department was ready to check out the views of downtown through its 40 cameras. Through the nodes and transfers, the video is sent to locations at the Dallas City Hall and Police Headquarters. There, it is monitored 24 hours a day by both retired and current police officers.

Officers monitoring the action can move most of the Sony cameras to different angles and directions. The cameras, also employed to act as investigative tools in instances where a crime does happen, can zoom in on smaller objects, or even a license plate as far as 300 yards away. They can capture footage in the dark as well.

The downtown area was picked because of its high population density and crime rate. The Police Department said the main crime problems include thefts, fights and robberies, partially stemming from the homeless population and the crowds from nightclubs and bars.

If the monitors catch a crime in progress, they immediately dispatch an officer to the scene. The footage, which can also serve as evidence when a crime happens, is only kept for two weeks.

"People are happy about us having more cameras," said Police Department spokeswoman Cpl. Jamie Matthews. "It lets officers be out on patrol in other places at the same time. It's just another law enforcement technique."

Dallas Police say the system is not meant to spy on people or intrude on citizens' privacy. The cameras adhere to all applicable laws and are clearly visible. There are also signs and labels pointing to the cameras.

"The wireless camera system will dramatically improve our ability to monitor this area of the city," said deputy chief Lawrence, "and we can now provide our officers with critical, real-time information they can use to protect the public and themselves whenever an incident is detected."

With the success beginning to show in reduced crime rates, the Police Department has begun working with BearCom to look at new areas for expansion.

"The city is looking at several different areas to move or expand their number of cameras," said BearCom's Huffman. "Of course, it all depends on funding."

The Dallas Police Department set specific goals for installing its cameras, hoping the safer downtown will help the city continue to prosper.

"Our goal is to reduce crime in major downtown areas by 30 percent within the first six months of installing the new video surveillance system," Lawrence said. "The central business district is essential to the economic success of our city."

Creighton Welch Contributing Writer