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  • Surveillance Cameras Covered With Bags

    Police surveillance cameras that are covered with plastic bags

    They want cameras to roll, Police surveillance cameras that are covered with plastic bags.

    By DAVID GAMBACORTA
    Philadelphia Daily News

    [email protected] 215-854-5994
    YOU'VE SEEN THEM around town, looming above an area like an obvious contradiction: Police surveillance cameras that are covered with plastic bags.

    It's a baffling sight to behold, for sure. But city officials say there's a good reason why dozens of cameras are bagged and not recording.

    Under Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey's crime plan, 250 cameras were supposed to have been mounted across the city by the end of the last year.

    A variety of obstacles arose - flaws in the cameras' design, problems with the city's wireless network, among others - and the $9 million project lagged badly. A new finish date was set for the beginning of this month, but the project is still a work in progress.

    "We are trying to hit the target by the end of the year," said Joe James, deputy chief information officer for the city's Division of Technology.

    "We're moving our wheels as fast as we can. Obviously, things slowed down because of the budget situation, but the numbers [of completed cameras] change almost daily."

    As of last week, James said, 186 cameras had been installed, but 69 of them were still bagged and needed to be wired.

    Critics - including veteran cops and city business owners interviewed by the Daily News - say the delay has allowed an untold number of thugs to get away with crimes that have been committed underneath bagged cameras.

    "Oh, don't get me started!" said Allen Feldman, owner of M London Furniture, at 5th Street and Girard Avenue, on the northern edge of Northern Liberties.

    A bagged camera hangs on a pole that overlooks Feldman's 114-year-old family business.

    "They put that camera up about a year ago, and it still doesn't work.

    "Back in May, we were robbed by two guys in broad daylight. When the cops showed up, they got excited because they figured the guys would have been caught on the camera. Then they saw the bag."

    Once the 250 cameras are up and running, plenty more may follow.

    Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Everett Gillison told the Daily News last week that he hopes to have 1,000 surveillance cameras installed across the city.

    In the coming months, he also expects local colleges to allow their campus surveillance cameras to be added to the Police Department's network, enabling cops to monitor the universities in real time.

    "From my point of view, we're trying to build out a true public-safety network," Gillison said.

    The cameras, he noted, are part of his larger goal to outfit the Police Department and other agencies with technological tools most large cities already use.

    "I keep telling people we have to push into the 21st century, because we happened to miss the 20th century," he said.

    So much for deadlines

    The seeds of the surveillance-camera system were planted in 2006, when then-Mayor John Street and then-Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson visited Baltimore.

    Officials there showed off their fledgling surveillance system, which they claimed had made a dent in crime.

    Street and Johnson were impressed. They decided that Philadelphia needed a surveillance system, too.

    That May, voters approved a referendum supporting the use of police surveillance cameras.

    Unisys was selected to manufacture the cameras, and a handful of pilot cameras were installed, James said.

    The project gained new life when Ramsey took over the department last year and demanded that 250 cameras be hung across the city.

    Then the problems began.

    "We realized the original design concept was flawed," James said.

    The plan initially called for the cameras to transmit images over the city's wireless Internet network.

    But city officials soon encountered a host of problems with that idea, James said. The cameras used up too much bandwidth, so the images weren't sharp. The cameras didn't work at night. They were too light-sensitive. Abrupt motions - a passing bus or truck - wiped out the image.

    James said the only remedy was to supplement the wireless network by running fiber-optic lines in areas around the cameras, a solution that improved the quality and range of the cameras, but also "made this more of an engineering project than a camera project."

    Hanging a camera on the side of a light pole took only about a week, but running the fiber-optic lines added another two to three weeks to every installation, James said.

    The project moved slowly.

    "I recall as of June [2008], we only had six cameras up," Gillison said.

    "I didn't care. To me, deadlines don't mean much if it's not done correctly."

    'The model works'

    Last week, during a tour of the monitoring room at Police Headquarters where a handful of cops watch footage around the clock, police officials boasted the positive impact surveillance cameras have had on fighting crime.

    About 200 suspects have been arrested because of crimes that were partially or entirely caught on tape, said police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore.

    Another 1,000 "contacts" have been documented - instances in which cops on the street were directed to investigate something based on the live camera feeds, he said.

    "It's another tool in our toolbox," added Capt. Lou Campione, who oversees the monitoring unit.

    In a department known for outdated, crumbling facilities, the monitoring room is clean, quiet and surprisingly sleek.

    A massive screen is divided into squares that feature crystal-clear footage from intersections across the city, as well as traffic images provided by state Department of Transportation cameras.

    The cops watching the footage - all of whom are recovering from work-related injuries - can communicate with police dispatchers and officers on the street if they spot criminal activity, Campione said.

    Campione said the monitoring unit fields calls daily from detectives and prosecutors looking for footage of crimes committed within range of working cameras. The surveillance footage, he noted, is saved for 30 days.

    To prove how effective the cameras are, Campione instructed an officer to pull up images being captured live at Broad Street and Girard Avenue.

    "Look at this," Campione said. "We can make out a license plate from two blocks away. If you look south, we can make out City Hall."

    Gillison said: "We know the model works, so let's see what we can do to broaden the appeal.

    "I'd like to have a thousand cameras up. I've already told [police officials] to start identifying where those cameras could go and why."

    Gillison said the city is talking with business leaders about finding a way for police to tap into private surveillance cameras in shops and stores through the monitoring unit - all part of that larger public-safety-net idea.

    He said he also wants to replace a group of old cameras perched atop City Hall.

    "Look, the cameras are not a substitute for police officers," Gillison said. "I would like to see 7,200 police officers on the street, but I'm down to 6,500.

    "I'm trying to provide service where I don't have enough police, while also giving the officers actual tools that work."

    'Be nice if they worked'

    Critics say the city needs to focus on hooking up the dozens of bagged cameras that dot the city's street corners before planning the next wave.

    The Daily News spoke with several veteran police investigators who complained of crimes that could have been solved if the bagged cameras had been working.

    One of them, who spoke on condition of anonymity, rattled off a list of recent killings that were committed within range of bagged cameras in Strawberry Mansion.

    "We have so few tools as it is, you hate to see these things up there and not working," he said.

    "We're talking about cases that we could have easily solved if those cameras were working. It's enough to drive you crazy."

    Similar frustrations were voiced by longtime city business owners.

    On a recent cool Friday evening, Keith Sherman stood outside his store, Real McCoy Athletic Footwear & Apparel, on Broad Street above Olney Avenue in Fern Rock.

    The intersection is one of the busiest in the city, with Girls High, a SEPTA hub and a variety of retail shops all located on opposite corners.

    A bagged camera hangs above the intersection, which also marks the spot where Officer John Pawlowski was fatally shot Feb. 13.

    "It would be nice if they worked," Sherman said. "I've been up here 18 years, and there's a lot that goes on."

    Several bagged cameras can be found along stretches of Stenton Avenue in East Germantown, where street corners often turn into drug battlegrounds at night.

    "Once the sun goes down, it turns into a big hellhole out there," said Fred Gilmore, a cook at Young's Deli, at Stenton Avenue and Johnson Street.

    Gilmore gazed out of the deli's front window at the passing traffic, then at a bagged camera above the intersection.

    "There's lots of drug activity out here every night," he said. "Last summer, we had a shooting in broad daylight, when kids were around.

    "We really need that camera on line. I mean, don't let it just sit there."

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