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St. Louis Ward Installs Cameras to Supplement Neighborhood Watch

Officials see cameras as substitutes for witnesses afraid to testify at trial.

by Corey McKenna / September 14, 2011

Officials in St. Louis hope surveillance cameras installed in parts of the city’s 21st Ward can help residents take back their neighborhoods.

The ward, composed of 10,869 residents in four neighborhoods, experienced 14 murders last year, up from six in 2009, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The ward has a history of violence since the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. Residents are notoriously wary of the police and don’t often reveal what they know about crimes. Officials hope the cameras offer a substitute for witnesses.

“What’s been most frustrating is not just that the crimes occur,” said Alderman Antonio French. “But even if they occur in broad daylight, with people out front, very few people would come forward and cooperate with police and act as witnesses out of fear.”

Fourteen wireless cameras have been installed since Aug. 9 in high-crime parts of the 21st Ward along Natural Bridge, which forms the ward’s main street, and Lee Avenue. The cameras are mounted on poles rigged with wireless modems that transmit full-motion at 30 frames per second from the camera to the monitors at the ward office.

The cameras are a part of a wireless mesh network that allows the video to be transmitted back to the ward office by multiple paths. That allows the video to reach its destination even if one of the modems goes down. Severed fiber-optic cables must be replaced before they can transmit data again.

The video from the cameras is displayed on four screens around the ward office and is monitored by French’s staff. In addition, a police officer has been assigned to the ward office to monitor the video that is also accessible to police through a secure website.

A spokesman for the St. Louis Metro Police Department said none of the department’s patrol cars had feeds from the cameras in them, and the officer assigned to that neighborhood was the only one watching the cameras.

The system includes video analytics software that could detect something — such as changes in traffic volumes — in an area worth investigating. The cameras also have the ability to detect faces and license plates.

French said the first cameras installed in the ward were set up to move along a path, but future cameras could be given a fixed position and used for analyzing an area.

He said the cameras are already helping police conduct investigations but none had reached prosecution yet.

The cameras also are seen as a tool to help residents take control of their neighborhoods along with initiatives, including increasing the number of neighborhood watch groups and restoring deteriorating houses.

French is considering asking some neighborhood watch members who underwent several weeks of training with the police to monitor the cameras from their homes. “Some of those people might be great folks to equip to be able to view these cameras,” he said. “None of them would have access to all of the cameras, but it would make sense for them to keep an eye on the camera overlooking their neighborhood.”


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