ALBUQUERQUE — For nearly two years, the Albuquerque Police Department has quietly been at work on a controversial law enforcement strategy in which live camera feeds are piped from more than 100 cameras around the city into a video command center at police headquarters to provide officers in the field with real-time information.
On Friday, officials unveiled the "Real Time Crime Center," a renovated wing on the third floor of the main police station Downtown that features a bank of 16 television screens — with a 90-inch monitor at its center — and eight work stations where a mix of sworn police officers on light duty and civilian APD employees gather information from dozens of public and private databases.
That information — which could, for example, include whether someone is a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — is relayed to officers as they make their way to a call for police service. And in the event that a call is taking place in an area where one of the cameras is, staff in the new crime center can manipulate the camera to watch what's happening.
The department expects the new system will help fight crime, improve officer safety and lead to fewer police shootings.
Albuquerque is following the lead of cities such as New York City; Memphis, Tenn.; Houston and Chicago in adopting the new technology for law enforcement. According to published reports, the results have been mixed in terms of reducing crime. Privacy and civil liberties advocates have raised concerns about whether the technology is overreaching.
City staff did most of the work in setting up the center, officials said, which cost about $800,000 in city bonds and federal grants. T.J. Wilham, a former Journal reporter and city Public Safety spokesman, is the center's manager.
Police Chief Ray Schultz said at Friday's unveiling that the new approach will improve efficiency at APD by allowing officers to spend more time working on proactive crime fighting. There's also another reason for opening the center.
"Our primary mission in opening this center is to reduce the number of deadly force encounters our officers are involved in and to help keep them and the public safe by providing them all of the information they need," he said.
APD officers have shot at 27 men since 2010, striking 24 and killing 17, one of the factors that prompted the U.S. Justice Department to launch a top-to-bottom civil rights investigation of APD in November.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said he is concerned about the center's capabilities.
"The department has created a system that has the potential to collect massive amounts of data and establish patterns of activity that the police might take as suspicious, but that are in fact activity that is perfectly law abiding," Simonson said Friday. "With APD, we have seen numerous examples of officers not acting in the best interest of the public ... The fact that APD has given itself this capacity, given its recent history, raises red flags for me."
But Simonson also praised two of Friday's announcements: The city is working with Sandia National Laboratories to study the effectiveness of the Real Time Crime Center, and APD has pledged to destroy the surveillance camera video every 24 hours.
Each of the cameras, which have been in place to aid city traffic engineers for years, records on a 24-hour loop, Schultz said, adding that their use does not amount to "Big Brother."
Wilham said: "There's a big difference between monitoring and intelligence gathering. This is video intelligence."
APD also is recruiting businesses to take part in the video system.
The department now has access to cameras at six Blake's Lotaburger locations. Those cameras, however, aren't streaming video around the clock. Police can only tap into them when a store employee presses an alarm button.
On March 14, the department is hosting an event at Cottonwood Mall at 8:30 a.m. to allow other private businesses to opt into the camera program.
Currently, APD has staff in the center eight hours a day, seven days a week, Schultz said. His plan is to expand that to 18 hours a day by May.
Integrated data hub
In addition to providing information to first-responding officers, the new center will serve as the hub for APD's closed-circuit television system that broadcasts information about people who have recently been released from jail, those wanted on warrants, where various types of crime have occurred during the past 24 hours and where department crime analysts expect criminals to strike in the next 24 hours.
APD plans to include on digital maps in the center the locations of all people wearing electronic ankle bracelets as part of the Metropolitan Detention Center's Community Custody Program.
Another controversial piece of law enforcement technology APD ultimately plans to include in its new approach: facial recognition software that will allow police to match images caught on cameras against "known criminals" in the state's Motor Vehicle Division database and other databases.
Simonson said that, used the wrong way, facial recognition could wander into the territory of illegal searches.
"If police are trying to identify anyone who appears on a camera and identify who is where and at what time, we would be greatly concerned," he said. "At that point, it begins to look like umbrella surveillance ... If they are strictly using it for the purposes of established criminal investigations, that diminishes the potential for civil liberties and privacy infringement."