Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Candid camera

The Public Works Department's network of pan-zoom-tilt traffic cameras continues to grow, as three more were added in the past week. Although these are primarily designed to help the traffic center monitor flow patterns and signal timings, they actually have some great potential for assisting us at the police department.

You might be thinking photo speed enforcement, or photo traffic signal enforcement--which is common in Europe and in parts of the U.S. (the Phoenix metro area, for example.) I like photo enforcement for traffic signals, not only because I am familiar with the research, but because I've personally seen the results: it seemed to me when I was last in Phoenix that people actually stop when the light turns yellow, rather than jam the accelerator, bust through the light, and suck three more cars through behind them. It will take action by the State Legislature to enable photo enforcement in Nebraska, and past legislative proposals have not fared well.

What really has me thinking, though, are the applications these cameras may have for criminal investigations and for public-place monitoring to improve safety. A few weeks ago, Capt. Jim Thoms and I followed a suspect vehicle up 27th Street on cameras at Old Cheney, Highway 2, South Street, Capital Parkway, and O Street. We finally caught a good enough shot at O Street to realize that the vehicle we had been following was the wrong one.

The City's traffic cameras aren't recorded (that's not something Public Works really needs), but a Nebraska company, Hawkeye Vision, has loaned me some equipment to cobble together a little experimental recording system right in my office for a few weeks. I'm only recording a handful of the 20 cameras, but it's been interesting. Officer Ray Kansier used it a couple weeks ago to get a better description of the possible getaway vehicle from a robbery. Investigator Shannon Karl found the suspect vehicle leaving the scene of a convenience store robbery on video last week. I've caught and recorded a few police incidents, and a bunch of traffic violations.

It certainly has my head spinning about what the future may hold. Checking video from convenience stores, ATMs, banks, gas stations, and so forth has become a pretty common step in many criminal investigations in the past few years. The difference here is in monitoring public places--streets, in this instance, but it could be parks, bus shelters, or other public facilities. If we have a description of a vehicle leaving a crime scene, for instance, it is almost a certainly that the vehicle will be driving through one of those 20 intersections. If they were all recorded, and the camera resolution, angle of view, and lighting cooperated, we'd really have something!

Some cities, like London and Chicago, are going hog-wild with cameras in public places. After dabbling with it a little bit, I can see why. When you think about it, we're all probably caught on camera several times daily--not just at the traffic light at a major intersection, but using the ATM, buying coffee at the Gas 'n Gulp, at the airport, and all sorts of other circumstances. It's cheap and easy, and lots of businesses are doing it that would never dream of CCTV five years ago. It's a little disconcerting to some people who think about the infringement on their privacy. I have to admit, I'm a little uncomfortable thinking about who's watching whenever I'm on an elevator these days.
I'm not without "big brother" concerns of my own, but on the other hand, the ability to remotely keep an eye on the pot boiling at 14th and O Street, or get a better description of the vehicle involved in the robbery is pretty enticing. My prediction: this is going to be a significant force in the future of policing.
We may not be able to do much about the private sector spread of cameras, but on the public side, it will be up to citizens to determine how far we allow this to go.


Anonymous said...


I agree completely that cameras would be an effective tool in law enforcement as well as assisting with national security. On the contrary, the ACLU seems to agree that it would be effective in regards to protecting national security, but the negitives it would propose, based upon their pessimistic beliefs, far outway the benifites.

My interpretation of the ACLU's stand on this is based upon a bunch of 'what if's' as they say in another breath that they recognize it would be a significant tool in combating terrorism and assisting with national security.

It's nice to see the ACLU recognize cameras as a superior tool, however, it is disturbing to see the ACLU lack of support they have for the same tool based upon 'what if' this was implemented.

The problem I see here is that it is easy to sit back and critisize the genius people coming up with ideas to help insure our families saftey, but it's not as easy to support great ideas because we are scared of "what could happen".

If something does happen, these are the same people that are going to say, "Chief! The ACLU would really like to know what you could of done differently to INSURE that this didn't have to happen!"


Chris said...

I lived in Denver for 8+ years, where they have photo radar & traffic light enforcement.

I support the idea of traffic light cams to catch red light runners. That is a clear & present danger that is noticeaby improved with the robot-cops perched up there. The result, people were appreciative of the benefit.

Photo radar however, stinks. I got picked up for speeding on photo radar, as did about half of the people i know. It must have been a huge revenue stream for the Denver PD, but I don't know anyone who changed their driving behavior because of it. The result, anger at the Police Department.

One question I have - In Colorado there was a law that required official street signs posted whenever photo radar or red-light cameras were in use. They were usually temorary construction type signs that blended into the urban background, but they were there. If you are recording the traffic cameras from your office, is there any sort of open public notification required? I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea, just wondering.

Anonymous said...

If Nebraska gets camera enforcement I guess I'll end up moving farther west. Maybe Wyoming, Montana, anywhere where I can't be charged with a crime by a machine.

Anonymous said...

I think that blogs are for simple minded people. Any comments?

Anonymous said...

"I've caught and recorded a few police incidents, and a bunch of traffic violations."

"My prediction: this is going to be a significant force in the future of policing."

of the police of the citizens???

Speedtrap said...


As a concerned citizen of this great country, I believe its incumbent of each of us to hold our elected officials accountable to serving the public, not the other way around.

To that end, I have been researching and blogging articles, in great depth, on this subject for some time:

Ultimately, it's up to the voting population (of both politicians and judges) to decided whether or not this continued erosion of our civil liberties is going to allowed to continue. I have attempted to recruit the ACLU, but alas, they appear to have already rendered an opinion that supports these systems [at the expense of our civil liberties), despite their own stated reservations.

Perhaps the ACLU should now stand for American Corporation Liberties Union, but that moniker would also be false, as most of the corporations involved with photo enforcement in the U.S. are foreign!