Surveillance camera system far from picture perfect
In June 2007, Mayor-President Kip Holden earmarked $3.5 million in surplus funds to deploy a wireless network of surveillance cameras and a gunshot detection system in high-crime areas of Baton Rouge.
Holden has said he’s a firm believer in technology that helps law enforcement officers do a better job, citing the surveillance cameras and gunshot detectors as an example in public speeches.
But more than three years later, the security canopy he commissioned to cover an 8-square-mile area is plagued with breakdowns. Annual maintenance fees are costing the police department upward of $400,000 a year. And the system’s effectiveness is open to debate.
Those are among the findings of a review of hundreds of pages of internal city-parish memoranda, e-mail exchanges, invoices and other documents obtained through Public Records Act requests.
Holden declined to be interviewed for this article, saying in an e-mail sent through an aide that “this is intelligence data that is reserved for our police department.”
The Advocate’s review found that:
■In setting up the security canopy, administration officials seemed unprepared for the steep annual maintenance fees required to keep the system in operation.
The Police Department’s budget manager, Simon Kwan, frequently sounded alarms about the size of the maintenance invoices coming in. “Did anybody advise the mayor before he decided to do this?” Kwan wrote in an e-mail to another estimate that $629,000 would be required to maintain the system and upgrade software in 2010 — a figure later revised to $459,830 because not all the cameras and equipment had been installed.
■The wireless system for the cameras and gunshot detectors is not robust enough for officers to consistently use while in the field. The bandwidth is not sufficient to allow officers access to live video feeds from cameras and other data, according to the Police Department’s 2010 accreditation report from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
“Accessing the camera system, as well as the shot detection system, requires additional bandwidth and server space that is not currently available,” the report states. “This causes the officers in the field to miss intelligence that is available through these systems.”
■ System failures appear to be frequent, based on a review of numerous e-mail exchanges and other written reports.
In January 2009, police Cpl. Johnathan Cambre wrote to administrators that “the vast majority of [camera] units are still not downloading properly” in the Police Department’s first district, historically one of Baton Rouge’s most crime-ridden areas.
A detailed log of problems reported in January shows dozens of instances in which “camera is live but not recording,” “server has lost connection to the camera” and “no lights, too dark to see anything.”
Police complained in May that the gunshot detection system failed to alert dispatchers when three people were shot at in the middle of the day and when gunfire left a person dead two weeks later.
Jerry Davis, senior vice president of operations for ShotSpotter, said the company upgraded software shortly after those incidents were reported.
He said ShotSpotter has since taken over maintaining its equipment under a contract separate from the one the city-parish had with NetMethods, the primary contractor that was in charge of building and maintaining the Wi-Fi network. ShotSpotter uses acoustic monitors to detect gunfire, pinpoint the location and alert police dispatchers.
■The mayor initiated the idea of building a security canopy covering high crime areas of the city, backed by Police Chief Jeff LeDuff. But the system met with skepticism elsewhere in the Police Department.
In an April 2008 e-mail, Nick Pizzalato, network administrator for the city-parish’s Information Services department, sent an e-mail to a representative of ShotSpotter.
“How can I convince the police that this is going to help them?” Pizzalato wrote. “They don’t want the system and they don’t think it’s going to be any benefit. I guess when I say they I mean the dispatchers because the field officers don’t even know about it yet.”
The ShotSpotter representative, Tri Yang, replied that the system would prove itself in time “when it provides evidence, takes weapons off the street, and ultimately leads to arrests.”
LeDuff acknowledged in a recent interview that dispatchers were initially resistant but added that the concerns have eased and the technology is “now part of who we are.”
The surveillance cameras and the gunshot detectors can be helpful tools for police when they work.
LeDuff called the technology a “force multiplier” that supplements what patrol officers on the ground can do.
He said crime analysts can review stored videos after an incident to identify witnesses and suspects or use it to search for other leads.
“We get a vehicle,” LeDuff said. “We get a description of somebody running. We get something to start with that will lead to somebody being arrested, something we would not have had.”
He said technology such as ShotSpotter alerts officers to incidents that they might not hear about from residents who are afraid to report crimes or don’t want to get involved with the police.
LeDuff said there is no way to quantify the arrests attributable to the surveillance camera and ShotSpotter system because it is just one of many tools police use to solve crimes.
Roger Tully, who shepherded the security canopy’s development as a police captain until his recent appointment as Alexandria’s police chief, said the cameras are “always patrolling, as long as they have power.”
A few mentions of arrests tied to the surveillance cameras or ShotSpotters appear in the records released to The Advocate.
One e-mail centered on the arrest of the “backpack burglar,” a homeless man suspected of break-ins in the downtown area, and another referred to a ShotSpotter alert leading police to a man firing a gun in his backyard.
Prosecutors handling juvenile crimes said a still photo and evidence obtained through ShotSpotter identifying the caliber of weapon fired were key to winning convictions in two cases.
“The information was used to confirm the location of the crimes and to impeach the defendants’ story,” said Mark Dumaine, chief of administration for East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III.
Beyond those cases, Dumaine said, prosecutors can’t recall using video footage from a Police Department pole-mounted surveillance camera in a criminal prosecution. But such technology, and the gunshot detector system, can be useful investigative tools, he said.
The security canopy covers some of Baton Rouge’s most dangerous neighborhoods — so rough that the police escorted NetMethods employees to set up equipment.
Tully asked Sgt. Larry Lewis in a September 2007 e-mail to have officers accompany the NetMethods workers as they did site surveys.
“It just involves keeping them out of trouble in some neighborhoods we are setting the cameras up in,” Tully wrote. “The locals don’t like the camera system much (we already had one shot out) and they won’t like it much with the sound sensor system attached to it either.”
It wasn’t long after cameras started going up that problems began to surface, raising questions about the system’s reliability.
In February 2008, Pizzalato, the city-parish information system network administrator, outlined a litany of problems to officials at NetMethods.
“Many of the cameras are without stored video,” he wrote. “This is starting to be an issue as we cannot retrieve valuable data for this shooting. It could have been caught on tape.”
He said “cameras are losing connectivity often” and seemed to be out more often than not.
“We need to get this scheduled and trouble shoot these issues soon,” Pizzalato wrote. “I want this system to work for public safety.”
But the problems persisted, according to internal records. In June 2009, Tully wrote to a NetMethods administrator about poor signals from a camera.
“The attached screen shot is from a shooting that occurred,” Tully wrote. “The SUV is shooting at the grey Cadillac. The camera is fixed on the intersection but the video is full of gaps.”
In May this year, police reported two missed shootings — including one in which officers found a body in the Thomas H. Delpit Drive and Grant Street area.
“As you know, the system has been out of maintenance for several months and without regular maintenance and service the system may not perform optimally,” responded Dana Ray, an official with ShotSpotter.
Maintenance costs have long been a concern with the security canopy project.
The Police Department paid NetMethods $385,733 in maintenance fees for 2009, a year when most of the equipment was going up, records show. Maintenance costs are projected to be in excess of $400,000 this year and again in 2011.
Kwan, the Police Department budget manager, in several e-mails questioned why so much was being spent on maintenance and what NetMethods was covering.
In an e-mail to Tully about bills to replace bad cameras, Kwan wrote: “Hard to believe for almost half a million dollars maintenance contract they don’t repair or replace damaged parts … I always thought this is no different than buying an extended warranty of any appliances, when they break you can return for repair or replacement.”
Bandwidth capacity issues have also presented challenges for police.
“It’s like a pipeline,” Tully said in a recent interview. “You can only run so much information through it, and video takes up a lot of bandwidth. If you get too many people on it, downloads get choppy.”
He said the 2.4 mhz bandwidth the Police Department uses for its wireless signal is the same one that businesses use to provide Wi-Fi service to customers. Police compete for access to bandwidth space.
Tully said the solution is to switch to a bandwidth dedicated solely for public-safety access, but that would require expensive changes in police equipment.
The decision to build a security canopy expanded on an earlier effort, launched soon after Holden took office, to install cameras to monitor critical infrastructure, such as bridges and the city-parish’s water and sewer systems.
While that was funded with federal homeland security grants, the cameras that specifically target high-crime areas were paid for with surplus city-parish funds. All of the cameras are now part of the same system.
Sgt. Chuck Fairburn said the security canopy now consists of 130 surveillance cameras, 103 of which are currently operating.
LeDuff declined to provide a list of camera locations, saying people will destroy them if they know where they are. So far, police officials said, three have been shot out and three were damaged when vehicles crashed into the utility poles on which they were mounted.
The city-parish bought the equipment from New Orleans-based NetMethods under a state procurement contract. The company installed cameras and other equipment and, until this year, was responsible for maintaining the entire system.
The owner of NetMethods, Mark St. Pierre, is under federal indictment in New Orleans, along with that city’s former technology chief, on kickback and bribery charges related to technology contracts.
NetMethods’ attorney Thomas M. Flanagan declined to comment on the Baton Rouge project.
A Baton Rouge-based company called MMR Communications currently maintains parts of the wireless network and a majority of the surveillance cameras. Other vendors maintain other parts of the system.
MMR employs some former NetMethods employees, including Baton Rouge project manager Michael Charbonnet and sales representative Billy Ridge.
Rodi Rispone, MMR’s general counsel, said the company has never been affiliated with NetMethods. He said MMR performs maintenance services as detailed in a purchase order issued by the city.
E-mail exchanges show that Mayor Holden took an active role in guiding the security canopy project and has sometimes directed where to place the cameras.
In a Jan. 14, 2009, e-mail, Tully told Kwan to process a payment so cameras and ShotSpotter equipment could be installed in an area Holden wanted covered. The locations discussed were blacked out of the e-mail released to The Advocate.
“The mayor is now directing for Shotspotter/Cameras to be deployed in [redacted],” Tully wrote. “This area was not slated/funded for Shotspotter, but the Chief insists the Mayor will pay for it. Therefore, we need to pay for this equipment that was ‘redeployed’ downtown from the [redacted] area (we ran out of equipment to deploy).”
Tully said in an interview that he recalled Holden directed cameras be redeployed to the Brookstown neighborhood after a spate of violence there.
LeDuff remains optimistic about the system’s potential.
“We will continue to work out the bugs that we have,” he said. “With anything new, you see some things that you have to monitor and work around.”
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