Keeping a tactical eye on schools; Project would link campus cameras to police car computers

By Stella M. Chavez and Mike Jackson
The Dallas Morning News

Frisco, Texas - Frisco city and school district officials are considering a high-tech partnership that would allow police to monitor school security cameras from their cruisers during emergencies.

Planning is in the early stages, but city and district officials say they could have the system in place by the beginning of the school year on Aug. 16.

"It would only be based upon the request of the school district, typically in an emergency situation," said Jason Gray, Frisco's assistant city manager. "We're not going to be monitoring them on a regular basis."

The system, though not unique, would be as high-tech as a school district could get, school safety experts say. Districts around the country began buying up security cameras, metal detectors and other equipment after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in 1999.

But Frisco's system would be "rather sophisticated technology when compared to what most school systems have in place," said Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit group of school safety consultants based in Georgia.

School security cameras aren't new to the area. Highland Park and Plano have them in their schools. And the Dallas and Denton districts are considering them. But none of them have links to police departments.

It is unlikely that Frisco would be the first district in the country to set up such a link between police and school cameras, Mr. Dorn said. Technology would make it easy for others to do so.

"A number of districts have the capability for remote viewing of building security cameras, but they typically must be viewed from a fixed facility such as a dispatch center," Mr. Dorn said. "While it is possible that they [Frisco officials] are the first district with this capability, it is likely that others already have it in place."

Technology in action

In March, the FBI used similar wireless technology during a bank holdup in Denton.

Using the Internet, the FBI was able to gain access to the bank's camera system and watch the bank robber's every move, officials said.

Ric Bentley, Frisco's information technology director, said the city and district successfully tested the technology recently by making a wireless connection between a police cruiser's laptop and the school district's computer network. The laptop picked up streaming video from a security camera.

The laptop was equipped with a device to enable the wireless connection. The police and fire departments will receive more of those devices next month.

The police would then be linked to the school district's new network of more than 100 digital security cameras. The cameras are being installed this summer in common areas of the district's 23 schools. Voters approved the $1.2 million video network last year when they passed a $478 million bond package.

City and school district officials plan to meet this month to set parameters for how the system would be used, said Terry Cornelius, the school district's executive director of technology and information services. The City Council and school board would still have to approve the arrangement.

Limited access

Access to the cameras' images would be limited to campus administrators most of the time, Mr. Cornelius said. District administrators in some cases would be allowed access.

Police, when called, could get access through an online identification name and password. "We're going to be real limited about who gets that information," Mr. Cornelius said.

Mr. Bentley said the system is set up to deter hackers.

"We're using multiple encryptions so that anybody who wanted to go and see if the network is available, they wouldn't be able to log on or be a user on the network," he said. "You'd have multiple rounds of authentication."

Police would be most likely to scan the cameras when burglar or fire alarms go off, Mr. Cornelius said.

"If we have an intruder or anything going on in the building, the police would be able to monitor it," he said.

Frisco's original plan didn't include a video link to police. City officials approached the district with the idea after installing a $17,000 wireless network that made the link possible. The city's network is still in the test stage, Mr. Bentley said.

Potential uses

Mayor Mike Simpson said he expects the technology to eventually be used in all public buildings.

"In today's environment, I think it's important to have good visual and all types of communication between our schools, public buildings and all environments," he said. "It could increase not only the response times but provide [police] a quicker assessment of what's going on. It could be the key to greatly reducing the possible risk of certain situations."

Frisco Police Chief Todd Renshaw said the plan could be useful to officers who are called to a school.

"If you have an alarm go off in the school at night ... without entering the building, an officer can pull up and on his mobile data computer he can see what's going on," he said. "Any time we can tap into that technology for public safety, I think that benefits anyone."

Mr. Gray said such technology would have been useful to officers who were sent to the site of the 1999 Colorado school shootings.

"Think of Columbine," he said. "Wouldn't it have been nice if police on the scene would have been able to look inside [the school]?"

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