Three years and $14M later, the city ends its video-support contract with Unisys. Now what?
Ever feel like you’re being watched?
Pick your nose, jaywalk or buy a dime on the street at your own peril because shops, banks, gas stations and other establishments have blanketed the city with video surveillance, not to mention the cameras at traffic lights, highways, toll booths and mounted on planes that search for speeders from above. As soon as you step out of your door, rest assured that someone is watching.
But not the police.
After three years and $14 million, the Philadelphia Police Department’s camera system still doesn’t work properly. There are 208 police cameras in various hotspots around the city, hanging from streetlights or light poles. But as of last week, 46 cameras remain nonfunctional, says Joe James, the city’s deputy chief information officer. Those 46 are covered in plastic garbage bags, exactly as useful as the bags’ normal contents.
The city’s original plan called for 250 cameras to be up and running by the end of 2008, with an option for an additional 250 for 2009. The Blue Bell, Pa.-based IT firm Unisys was contracted for the installation, maintenance and support of the video system. But technical problems plagued the project from the start, and last November the city quietly ended its contract with Unisys. Workers from the city’s Division of Technology have taken over efforts to get the system up and running. After shelling out more than $13 million to Unisys for work that still hasn’t been completed, the city figures it can get the job done by itself.
The reason for all the delays, city officials say, is the original design of the network was based on the faulty assumption that wireless technology could carry the data from cameras to police headquarters.
“At first it was supposed to be a totally wireless system,” says Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Gaittens. “Then we found out that we just couldn’t because of size of buildings and city infrastructure.”
“This was fairly new, virgin territory,” James adds. “No one had done a new, wireless scale they were proposing. It was based on engineering, not a real proven solid track record.”
The wireless network could not handle the bandwidth the cameras needed, and the signal was often blocked by the El structure and downtown buildings. To handle the system’s demands, an expensive, physical fiber-optic network needed to be installed.
“We have to run fiber-optic cabling to cameras, have to install switching and fiber out in the field,” James says. “It takes people, time and equipment to get all that stuff done.”
However, since most of the cameras are already in place, James says the city could lay the remaining cable itself, so it canceled the contract with Unisys. “The more we got involved first hand, I just thought it was easier for us to do,” James says. “We stopped their work around 23rd of November.”
Unisys declined to comment on the matter and referred all questions to James.
The city’s original contract with Unisys signed in 2007 was for $8 million, but eventually ballooned to more than $13 million. This year, James says the city has an additional $1 million budgeted for the project, all of which can go toward equipment and software since the DOT employees doing the work are already on the city payroll.
“They’re coming online every day,” James says of the cameras. In fact, 10 have been brought online since mid-June. James projects that all cameras will work by November, although the city made the same claim last year—and the year before.
The cameras should be a valuable tool for law enforcement. Video recordings have been an ever-increasing component of police investigations, notably in the Sabina Rose O’Donnell case, when a Northern Liberties waitress was found raped and murdered in early June. Footage captured from a number of private security cameras helped identify suspect Donte Johnson.
There hasn’t been such a high-profile capture yet using the city’s own camera system, although the police do claim positive IDs on shootings, burglaries and other crimes.
“It’s not the end of all; just another tool,” says PPD Lieutenant Tom Woltemate, a 29-year veteran who runs the camera room at the Roundhouse. “Everything helps.” He says it’s too early in the cameras’ deployment to provide numbers on how many criminal cases they have affected.
One huge screen in the front of the camera room shows 16 live images at once, while a handful of officers watch dozens of other monitors that can call up any one of the functioning cameras. Officers use joysticks to pan, tilt and zoom, rendering small signs down the street easily viewable.
The cameras are scattered throughout the city, placed in areas requested by district captains. “They know where crime patterns are,” Gaittens says. North Broad Street is well-covered, with one or two cameras placed at every intersection through Temple’s campus, and others on side streets from 12th to 16th. Other heavily monitored areas around the city include Sixth Street in Northern Liberties and the 52nd Street commercial corridor in West Philly.
The next step in the journey to the future is slightly unsettling. Because it basically involves fighting crime with cameras. A boat load of them. But don’t be too concerned if you’re not cool with the idea of being watched (or if you don’t think cameras can deter crime). The city doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to these things (read: technological advancements of any kind). Still, in spite of evidence pointing to the tenuous relationship between cameras and decreased crime, the city’s going through with it.
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