Public Safety & Justice

The Valley of Surveillance

You can find practically anything you need along Indian School and Thomas roads in Phoenix - at the tortillerias, the pharmacies, the supermarkets, the auto...
by | June 30, 2007

You can find practically anything you need along Indian School and Thomas roads in Phoenix - at the tortillerias, the pharmacies, the supermarkets, the auto parts stores, the Laundromats and the carry-outs. Between those busy boulevards lined with strip shopping centers sit quiet blocks of modest homes with palm trees, prickly pear cacti and a stunning view of the mountains.

But last summer, residents weren't enjoying the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods. They were fearful of what was lurking outside. For more than a year, the Valley of the Sun had been terrorized by a serial killer who had been on the loose wearing a disguise of dreadlocks and a fishing hat. What's more, a pair of other killers was also shooting at random victims.

The horror of these events jump-started the acquisition of a state-of-the-art surveillance system that not even the cop shows on TV have caught up with yet. Forget those white vans parked down the street near the crime scene with trash-talking tough guys wearing headphones doing surveillance. In Phoenix, wireless cameras that tilt, pan and zoom now can be strung up in neighborhoods quickly, and police can watch the images from headquarters, in squad cars or on handheld devices.

Despite the roughly half-million-dollar price tag, it wasn't a tough sell to purchase wireless mesh cameras, as they're known, in a jittery city with a frustrated administration and police department desperately trying to get the murderers rounded up. For months, police teams were working 24/7 to find the slayers, using all manner of electronic surveillance techniques, and they needed all the help they could get. City officials still are tight-lipped about the precise way the cameras were used in the Baseline Killer case (named for the road where the initial incidents took place). Nevertheless, it's clear that, mounted in a 5-square-mile radius where some of the murders were occurring, they were considered an important tool in the hunt for suspects.

Around the country, people are increasingly familiar with surveillance cameras that capture drivers who run red lights and watch passengers enter subway systems or government buildings. Often they don't know that cameras are being deployed to fight crimes. That is the way most police departments would prefer it. Law enforcement authorities realize that fear of a surveillance society, in which information might be gathered in large quantities in both overt and covert ways, is very real to many people.

The Phoenix police department hasn't heard many complaints about the city training cameras on public streets to combat heinous crimes. But other types of government surveillance techniques have raised hackles, from using cameras at toll booths to setting them up on street corners to catch random petty criminals. The American Civil Liberties Union objects to "the impulse to blanket our public spaces and streets" with video surveillance. Still, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the government trend toward capturing images of the public in many ways and places has taken off.

Privacy concerns vary depending on how the surveillance is employed, its purpose and how much it focuses on individuals' day-to-day activities. Is it random or targeted? Are police going fishing, hoping to nab anyone for anything? Or are they searching for a dangerous repeat offender? How and where surveillance should be used remains an open debate.

It now is increasingly difficult for residents and visitors in large cities to go about their business without one camera or another trained on them at some point. In Los Angeles, cameras observe the historic area, the fashion district, downtown's "skid row" and a public housing project. In Secaucus, New Jersey, scores of them are used for surveillance in the many corners of New Jersey Transit's Secaucus Junction train station. In Howard County, Maryland, they keep a watchful eye on the landfill, a rifle range and a park.

Government cameras also watch the Texas-Mexican border; toll roads in Harris County, Texas; the jail, the schools, a walking trail and the wastewater treatment plant in Fresno, California; and passengers on every Chicago bus and in many of the Windy City's transit stations. Mayor Richard M. Daley likes the idea of extra eyes that augment the police force. "It would be nice to have a police officer stationed at every corner and on every bus and train, but we could never afford it," he says. "A camera is the next best thing, and it provides a video record of the incident."

Critics say the presence of cameras simply moves criminals a few blocks away to get out of camera range. But that is not as futile as it might seem, notes Kevin Smith, spokesman for the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications. When drug dealers move to unfamiliar locations, they are off balance. In the old neighborhoods, they knew where to hide drugs, knew the lines of sight from their dealing area, knew who was a friend and who was not. Forcing them to unfamiliar territory puts them at a disadvantage and helps police on the ground catch them making mistakes.

UMBRELLAS OF COVERAGE

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon is proud of the new surveillance system and the police department's ability to make the most of it. When he looks out the picture windows of city hall, toward South Mountain, he can point out parts of the valley where the Baseline Killer struck. With 500 square miles comprising Phoenix, this view wordlessly explains the folly of trying to cover every inch of the city with cops or fixed cameras, even when several serial killers are at large.

That is why having the ability to set up cameras quickly in areas where criminals are likely to strike next is so useful. If there was one "benefit," he says - and then winces at the word - from the unfortunate months of serial crimes in his city, it was that it put the purchase of the slick new camera system into hyper mode.

Unlike old microwave cameras - often black and white, fixed in one place and with the low quality of a VHS tape - Phoenix police can rotate the new cameras 360 degrees and have enough bandwidth to get nearly real-time video. Moreover, they have the ability to do "smart searching" of the video, without having to watch the whole thing from start to finish. There are ways to search by motion, for instance. If an hour elapses before someone crosses in front of a camera, officers can click right to that portion of the video.

And although it works wirelessly, mesh technology doesn't have the vulnerabilities of wireless hotspots where typical computer users set up their laptops. The mesh technology carries images and data to the Internet via nodes set up around an area, in the way a wire would carry data to the Internet on a home computer. The mesh infrastructure creates "umbrellas" of coverage and data hops from one "umbrella" to another. If a truck driving by interferes with one node, for example, the mesh reconfigures to pass data through a different node, without a user noticing the disruption.

The concept of cameras was not entirely new to Phoenix: The city has been using them for 20 years - first for traffic control, then to help police deal with a graffiti problem. And, before 9/11, the city was considering putting surveillance cameras on the streets to help fight crime. But the idea languished - until the killings started. And when they didn't stop, it was time for new technology.

Since then, the system has opened up a lot of possibilities for enforcing public safety in Phoenix. But it also has forced the city to think about how it wants to police. "The greatness of the technology also is its liability," Gordon says. The police can't possibly watch everything that is going on in the city, so it has to narrow its scope. The mayor says it is both his and the police department's philosophy to use the cameras to target "the worst of worst" among the 60,000 arrests the department makes each year: the repeat offenders.

Phoenix is the first big city north of the Mexican border in Arizona and is a trans-shipment area that sees a lot of trafficking in drugs, money and people. In addition, there is the huge Indian reservation of the Tohono O'odham, a rural area that straddles the border and makes policing tough. All of these factors make kidnappings a major issue. Sometimes family members of drug dealers are snatched if the dealer is owed money. The same holds true with family members smuggled from Mexico. Kidnappers prey on the vulnerable waiting families, telling them they now owe money to both the human smuggler and the kidnapper.

Those cases are difficult because families are only mildly cooperative. They don't want to report that they've worked with a smuggler. Police will use the whole spectrum of electronic surveillance, from GPS to wiretaps to cameras, to conduct investigations. Some neighborhoods are difficult to monitor because everyone knows who does and doesn't belong, and the presence of an undercover cop would be noticeable. Police run the risk of scaring off the person they're trying to catch or having him move elsewhere to commit crimes.

But the surveillance cameras can be placed quickly and surreptitiously. "We've departed from places in the country that put them up and they're there forever," says Detective Chris Jensen. "Now we're so comfortable with the technology, we pull it down and put it up somewhere else within a day." And they change their methods constantly. Other cities mount the cameras using utility trucks and personnel that look like they're doing line repair work. The cameras can look like utility boxes, street lights or air conditioners. Some sport signs that read, "Caution, High Voltage."

MISUSE AND ABUSE

Although the Phoenix police talk enthusiastically about the cameras' capabilities, others are not so sure the technology is as effective as the cities that use them believe. The ACLU cites studies from around the world that show that cameras do not prevent or reduce crime, or fear of crime by citizens. Government experts on security technology say that monitoring video screens is so "boring" that most people's attention wanders beyond acceptable levels.

In Los Angeles, however, the Jordan Downs housing project has experienced a more than 30 percent drop in crime in areas where fixed cameras were installed. There is now safe passage for students to make the three-block walk to school. Parents who live in the project have started allowing their kids once again to play on the street.

On the other hand, cameras don't seem to be much help in securing convictions in court. Baltimore set up dozens of cameras in high-crime neighborhoods in the hope that catching criminals on video would mitigate the city's serious problem with witness intimidation. But the ability to successfully place criminals at crimes scenes has not materialized, according to state's attorney Margaret Burns. "Using pole cameras to reduce violence has been overrated and has not delivered," she says, "despite millions in expenditures the city made to put them up." Pictures from the cameras have been grainy and hard to use for identification in the court room. Violent criminals have not been captured on tape. What the cameras have done is provide evidence for misdemeanor crimes such as hawking cigarettes without a license. Phoenix's Jensen says their cameras provide clear images.

Privacy-rights organizations believe the cameras are intrusive and subject to abuse. And they say there is no clear consensus on where to draw the line on how they are used. The ACLU, for instance, worries that such tools could give law enforcement officers an opportunity to make mischief or criminally misuse surveillance. The group cites a 1997 example of a police official using databases to gather information on patrons of a gay club and blackmailing married patrons. And a database in Michigan was used by officers to help friends track estranged spouses or threaten motorists after traffic altercations.

Privacy groups also are concerned about discriminatory targeting and voyeurism on the part of law enforcement. In San Francisco in 2005, a police officer was suspended for using airport surveillance cameras to zoom in on women's bodies.

Even fear of terrorism isn't a justification for cameras to be installed everywhere, says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in Washington, D.C. It is an "open-ended rationale." A more thoughtful assessment of new technologies, as well as their potential for misuse and abuse, is needed, he says.

No jurisdiction in the United States is practicing surveillance as aggressively as municipalities in Great Britain. Widespread camera deployment began there years ago in reaction to attacks by IRA terrorists but since has turned into a petty-crimes watch. The philosophy is to cut down on anti-social behavior, and therefore violent crime. Some wonder, though, if this is the direction America is headed.

A pilot project in Middlesbrough, a town in Northeast England, has outfitted seven of nearly 160 cameras with loudspeakers. Control room operators who spot a wrongdoer might make an announcement heard on the street, such as, "Warning: You are in an alcohol-free zone. Please refrain from drinking." And, in what you might think would be a good Monty Python sketch, traffic "wardens" in Salford, England, soon will be wearing head-mounted miniature cameras to resolve disputes over tickets and prosecute drivers who assault or abuse staff, according to the BBC.

NO FISHING

Phoenix police feel that they are far from that model. They don't believe they can snoop wherever and whenever they wish. "Rights management" dictates who controls which cameras and who can see what. Phoenix schools that use cameras, for instance, can call in the police to look at certain activities when necessary, but the school administration also can shut out the police from watching what goes on. The police feel comfortable that they're not invading anyone's privacy rights and that what they're doing is legally defensible. "If you're not out involved in criminal activity, you will not have cameras zooming on you," says Ed Zuercher, the mayor's chief of staff. "If you are, there will be warrants."

The cameras are no different from any form of electronic surveillance, such as wiretapping of phones, notes Glen Gardner, a drug enforcement officer. "What we are capable of doing, we should be doing," he says. There is a process in place to get approval before embarking on investigation-specific electronic surveillance. "We don't put cameras out there to go fishing," he says. Where there is an expectation of privacy, a request goes up the chain of command to the legal department to get permission to use surveillance cameras.

They are not used for small crimes. "Growing weed in your backyard?" says Lieutenant Vince Piano. "We couldn't care less." Rather, police detectives are focused on drug-conspiracy cases. "It allows us to catch major criminals," Piano says. If the police did want to zoom in on that pot patch, they would need a court order to allow the cameras to look into someone's backyard.

Many law-abiding citizens feel safer knowing there are cameras out there helping with police work. "In this day and age, people are comforted by the fact that we have such a robust system" on buses and in train stations, says Dan Stessel, spokesman for New Jersey Transit. "They know it enhances security within the open-transit environment."

While most of the discussion about video surveillance revolves around terrorism and crime, those aren't the only uses for it. Government agencies and departments use it to run facilities more smoothly, to avoid expensive liability cases and to improve customer service. For instance, cameras at Penn Station in New York City are used for crowd control. Train platforms are narrow and there are a limited number of ways to get to the tracks from the upstairs waiting area. Escalators need to be switched to run up or down depending on whether trains are arriving or departing. Operations personnel use cameras to observe the flow of traffic and monitor bottlenecks.

On the customer service side, if someone leaves a bag behind, or someone reports an unattended bag or package, cameras can quickly identify who the owner is, and perhaps, which direction he or she went. As for liability, NJ Transit has seen the number of injury claims at the Secaucus station drop markedly. If someone were to run across the tracks in a hurry to catch a train and fall and injure himself, the cameras could prove he was walking where he shouldn't have been and has no grounds to sue.

Now that Phoenix has seen the power of its surveillance equipment, city leaders and the police have all sorts of ideas for what to use cameras for next. They're thinking about sharing private industry's closed-circuit television cameras and other city departments' cameras and accessing those venues for using their own encrypted cameras when needed.

At the moment, Phoenix is facing a high rate of copper theft from city transformers, new construction and old buildings, because of soaring prices for the metal on the black market. The police are thinking about ways to adapt the cameras to deal with that problem.

Phoenix has looked through the surveillance technology lens and likes what it sees. But the mayor is also careful to point out that cameras are but one tool in a comprehensive strategy. "It's a fool's game for any city not to rely on technology," Gordon says. "But just as foolish to rely only on technology. Some areas can't replace boots on the ground."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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