Horses to High-Tech
Sacramento Police Department uses video downlink to manage USDA event that focused worldwide attention on capitol city
By Darby Patterson
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- An event that was originally dubbed "the USDA Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology" became better known as the global "bio-technology" conference in mid-June as protestors from far and wide descended on the streets of Sacramento. According to Capt. Sam Somers of the Sacramento Police Department, the city knew about the USDA''s event late last year but became concerned when intelligence officers reported active "chatter" on Web sites espousing everything from social disruption to violence.
"About 120 days prior to the event, we started getting some information about people trying to make it the WTO, trying make it Seattle -- with multiple millions of dollars worth of damage," Somers said. " So we had a short amount of time to do a lot of stuff, and there were a lot of hours put in on the planning stages."
"The planning and preparation paid off as radical groups joined mainstream protestors to voice their objections to genetic engineering of foods and other related causes. The three-day event that attracted an estimated 2,000 protestors resulted in 66 arrests, no reported injuries and a minimal amount of vandalism. Attendees at the conference numbered about 1,400 international ministers and their staffs. The SPD dedicated about 350 officers who were joined by other state, local and federal law enforcement personnel. Key to the management of crowds of people -- some dedicated to inciting riots -- was an eye in the sky, according to Somers.
"We have a video downlink system which is basically a camera system that we have on our helicopters -- like what you see used by a lot of media ..." he said. "We tried to apply that to how we could best use it tactically. So, we outfitted both of our helicopters."
The system, provided by Broadcast Microwave Services headquartered in San Diego, was originally launched in 2000 when the city hosted the track and field Olympic trials. The system utilizes a video downlink and Forward Looking Infrared technology (FLIR). According to Mark Bateson, a solutions architect with HP who works with the SPD, the transmitter is in the helicopter which is followed by a tracking receiver on the ground. "That comes into our fiber network in our headquarters building," Bateson said. "Anyone who has a cable network connection can access it." The early version of the system, however, only hinted at what it could do for crowd monitoring and control.
During the USDA conference, the incident commander at headquarters and supervisors in patrol cars with laptops were able to watch the movement of large crowds of people, immediately redirect officers on horse, foot and motorcycle to where they were needed. This was particularly effective during an approved "parade" by protestors when splinter groups tried to break away and disrupt downtown traffic and business. In addition, the FLIR technology, that follows heat signatures, allowed officers to identify people hidden either by shadows or the darkness of night, foiling plans that some protestors had to inflict damage on property.
"But, Somers said the protestors, in general, were not predictable. "At the time, like on Sunday, these folks didn''t have a parade permit or any permit at all. So, it''s not like they had a game plan. It''s a matter of being able to deal with what they throw at us."
There were also static cameras at ground level, beaming pictures from various locations to provide a horizontal view of activities. At command headquarters, a flat screen displayed all the images, creating an expansive yet detailed view of events around the state capitol and convention center area. Karen Hill, IT manager for SPD, said viewing the operation from her office miles away was an experience to be remembered. "You''d watch the helicopters'' movements and listen to the radio, and then see the movement of the crowds," she said. "It was really impressive to watch."
It''s not as if the protestors themselves did not use technology. According to Somers, in addition to using the Internet to organize the event, some of the protestors tapped into a pirated radio network to communicate while on the ground. The state''s Office of Emergency Services detected use of the illegal frequency, and the channel was shut down. Somers said OES also played a major role in preparing for the event. "They are a great asset to the state," Somers said. "They recognized the ''chatter'' on the Web that had come though and the information that was coming out was that it was potentially going to be a very major event."
In 1990, Sacramento police responded to another event that drew a much larger crowd of demonstrators expressing their opposition to AB 101 -- a bill that raised the ire of the gay rights community. Somers admitted that law enforcement had very little impact on the thousands of activists that occupied the Capitol grounds, blocked traffic and caused significant damage. Then, they were equipped with only 20 police officers and no technology.
That all changed when the department acquired a grant to purchase the technology, and then got creative about acquiring aircraft. "We got military surplus helicopters that needed work," Somers said. "Actually, we got six, sold four of those helicopters and used the money from the four to refurbish the two helicopters."
After the trial run for the pre-Olympic event, they started seeing more possibilities. Bateson said the first idea was to provide officers in patrol cars with "suitcase" units that could be set up to tap into the downlink. "But things happen too quickly to stop in the field and hook up two wires," Bateson explained. "We realized its cool technology with the suitcase, but it wasn''t as practical as we thought." The decision was made to make the live video available on laptops with the push of a button.
"The other lesson learned from past experience was the importance of tactical planning in advance of a potentially major event. That included not only how officers in the field would be deployed, but also how to handle the media. Rather than make it challenging for reporters to cover the event, Somers headed up a team of officers dedicated to making access easy -- complete with dedicated parking, uplinks for media technology, frequent press briefings and demonstrations of how technology was being used in the effort.
He also said the department emphasized the constitutional right of individuals to express their political beliefs in a nonviolent manner. Somers'' definition of nonviolence does not include turning over cars, breaking windows and damaging property. "If you are here to tear up our city, that''s violence," he stated. Sacramento is the scene of frequent demonstrations around the Capitol building, but few gatherings create problems for law enforcement. "It doesn''t take a lot to manage people that are here to express their views," Somers said. "We are not here to prevent that. We are here to facilitate that."
"Sacramento''s "eye in the sky" grabbed the attention of other jurisdictions and Somers believes his department developed one of the nation''s first effective video downlinks for law enforcement. Already, the technology was sent to Washington, D.C. for an event that involved protection of the president. And, the Los Angeles Police Department is looking at the technology.
With good organization and planning, the system has proven its ability to make a difference in the outcome of a volatile situation. Along with traditional tools and methodologies such as officers on horseback, effective technology has a definite place in law enforcements'' arsenal. "It started out as a nice-to-have," Karen Hill said. "Now, it''s a got-to-have."