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Los Angeles Gets Wireless Surveillance Cameras

American Civil Liberties Union continues to object to city’s crime camera program.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) completed this month an installation of 23 wireless surveillance cameras in high-crime areas. Cameras were installed atop light poles and traffic lights in the Mission, Foothill and Southwest Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Sandra Russell, a senior systems analyst for the LAPD, said the goal of the project is simply to reduce crime in the city. The cameras are monitored by volunteers and officers during peak crime periods and can also be monitored in the watch commander’s room, Russell said.

The cameras were installed by Wi4Net, a division of CelPlan Technologies, through city redevelopment funding as part of an ongoing city project. Next on the list for cameras are Topanga and West Valley; each neighborhood will get eight cameras.

According to a press release from the vendor, the LAPD has used the cameras to make arrests in connection with drug dealing, vandalism and pirated DVD sales.

The system is comprised of PTZ cameras with 35 times magnification optical zoom. Because this type of system relies on zooming rather than a fixed-position, high-resolution setup, either a human operator or computer program is needed to zoom in on the area where a crime is suspected. The LAPD does not monitor the cameras constantly, but instead assigns human operators during peak crime periods and sets computer presets for automated zooming and panning when human operators are not available.

The cameras can recognize a face that’s 600 feet [away], said Jasper Bruinzeel, CelPlan Technologies’ vice president of marketing. “We place them as high as we can.”

Los Angeles began installing surveillance cameras in selected locations a few years ago. The first wireless cameras were put in starting last year. Further extensions to the city’s camera system are in the works, Russell said.

“It’s nice to put up technology but if you don’t use it, it’s hard to justify this kind of investment,” Bruinzeel said. The LAPD is making the most of its investment, he said, by quickly dedicating personnel and resources to the cameras.

Starting a wireless infrastructure — including analytic video software and network storage — can make initial investment expensive. But expanding the network becomes cheap once the infrastructure is in place, Bruinzeel said. “A couple hundred thousand dollars is a good budget for cities to get into this capability,” he said.

The company has installed surveillance cameras for city governments in Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Long Beach, Calif., and smaller cities such as Modesto, Calif.

“I think we’re at a point where cities know the value of this,” Bruinzeel said. “I think this is a technology that will not go away. It’s become a matter of finding the funding. As far as convincing cities that these systems work, we’re past that point.”

The future of city surveillance cameras could include links between third-party cameras and city infrastructure. A city could someday have access through its infrastructure to store parking lot cameras or even more sophisticated security technology, Bruinzeel said. Technology such as automated license plate recognition, chemical sensors for detecting bombs or drugs, and security access controls could all someday be integrated into today’s current camera systems.

With this type of technology in the hands of the government, the discussion about privacy always arises. Bruinzeel said he doesn’t think the police are using the technology for anything but keeping citizens safe. “It’s hard for me to see secondary motives,” he said.

The issue, though, has been divisive. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been fighting against surveillance cameras for years. In 2008, the ACLU wrote a letter to the L.A. City Council denouncing the city’s surveillance cameras for their lack of efficacy, high expense and the privacy intrusion they create.

“It’s not a justified intrusion into privacy,” said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. Intrusions into privacy must be balanced with benefits to society, and in this case there are none, Bibring said.

“They’re expensive and have been consistently proven to be ineffective,” he said. “Study after study has shown that cameras have no significant effect in solving crime. If cameras had a significant effect on solving crime, that effect would show in studies.”

“If they’re not addressing the fact that the cameras they have don’t work, that’s a problem,” Bibring said. “It doesn’t seem to me that adding cameras is a good use of city resources.”

One 2008 study determined that surveillance cameras in Los Angeles have no significant impact on crime rates.

A different study, released two months ago by the Urban Institute, concluded that cameras are generally worth the investment in large cities as long as they are actively monitored.