Monday, May 25, 2009

Federal Way sets up camera net to fight crime

Federal Way police are watching the city with 27 remotely controlled cameras to monitor trouble spots, catch crimes in action and record evidence to convict criminals.


The News Tribune

Federal Way police are watching the city with 27 remotely controlled cameras to monitor trouble spots, catch crimes in action and record evidence to convict criminals.

The new digital tool for fighting crime is like having multiple eyes over the city's downtown. With the click of a mouse, each camera can pan, tilt and zoom from street lights and buildings. High-resolution images zero in on license plates on suspects' vehicles.

At the police station in City Hall, volunteers are learning to look at the live images for suspicious activity, such as car prowls. They use two computer screens and a 40-inch flat screen television.

Meanwhile, officers in their patrol cars are watching the cameras' images on their laptops.

Lt. Sandy Tudor coordinates the project for the police.

"We want the bad guys to know they're monitored in Federal Way so they can take their crime elsewhere," Tudor said.

Critics say the cameras are a step toward an Orwellian "surveillance society," while supporters say the system will yield results and already has.

It has led to an assault conviction, determining the cause of a serious traffic accident, and identifying a bank robber's SUV.

The program, called Safe City, was pieced together over several months. It also aims to link businesses so they can alert one another to crimes. One purpose of a public launch event this week is to draw support from businesses.

The $285,000 project is funded by a $100,000 grant from the Target Corp. and money from the city of Federal Way. The Federal Way Chamber of Commerce is also a program partner.

Similar Safe City projects have been launched in more than 20 communities across the country, but Federal Way is the first city in the Northwest.

"I think it's fantastic," said Officer Eric Mattson. "This is the way we're going to be able to provide security in high-crime areas 24 hours a day.

"It's going to help us catch criminals," Mattson said. "It's going to keep our downtown corridor safer."

Images from the 35-power zoom cameras are recorded around the clock, seven days a week. Unless police choose to save recordings, they are erased after seven days.

The recordings will provide evidence for prosecuting the range of crimes, from misdemeanors to felonies. "It should make cases very strong," Tudor said.

Police are only using the cameras to view what the public already can see from public areas, in line with the department's policy protecting privacy rights, Tudor said.

But the ACLU of Washington does not favor police camera surveillance systems, such as Federal Way's.

"Programs that have police cameras recording what people do on sidewalks move us closer to a surveillance society," said Doug Honig, communications director for the ACLU of Washington.

"Certainly I can understand the importance of dealing with crime problems, but research has shown such cameras are not effective in dealing with crime," said Honig, referring to studies of surveillance camera systems in New York and Britain.

"What they do is move crimes around to areas outside the eyes of the cameras."

Tudor said police believe the cameras will deter bad behavior by exposing crimes in progress, helping prosecutions, and preventing camera-wary criminals from attempting to break the law.

Lottie Kinney, one of about 10 volunteers who have signed up to monitor the cameras at the Federal Way police station, learned what to look for last week. The team of volunteers will monitor the images about 20 hours a week.

"It lets me learn more about my city," Kinney said. "It helps the officers locate the bad guys."

The cameras are Web-based, but don't expect to see the feeds on a public Internet connection any time soon. Tudor said they can only be accessed on the city's network, which contains sensitive police information.

She said viewing is also limited to trained volunteers and police to protect against violations of privacy.

Nearly all of the cameras are located in the downtown area, aimed at businesses including banks and The Commons shopping mall.

One camera already targets the Federal Way Transit Center from across 23rd Avenue South. Sound Transit plans to add three more cameras on transit center property in the next two months; they will be part of the Safe City system. By September, Sound Transit plans to upgrade 30 of its 50 cameras at the center.

The transit center has been the scene of at least three violent crimes in the past 18 months a beating, stabbing and fatal shooting. The quality of the transit center' security cameras was called into question as a result of the shooting.

In January 2008, Darrel Miller, 38, was shot and killed while crossing a bus lane. Glenn C. Proctor was charged with second-degree murder, partly based on grainy video from the transit center' cameras. Proctor was released 11 months later when charges were dropped after forensic analysis of that surveillance video provided by Proctor' lawyers determined he wasn't the shooter.

While parked on patrol at the transit center, Mattson already has used the new system to watch for suspicious activity.

He said he believes the cameras will deter crime at the transit center and elsewhere.

If people know they're going to get caught on video committing a crime, Mattson said, "you're going to think twice about committing that crime, especially within the city of Federal Way."


Information from: The News Tribune,

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