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Philadelphia to get more police cameras

Philadelphia joins other cities like Chicago, New York, Cincinatti, Houston and St. Louis as those utilizing surveillance camera technology to fight crime. Check out the articles in the P1 Grants section to see how some cities funded their camera purchases.

By Jeff Shields
The Philadelphia Inquirer

WEST PHILADELPHIA — Following a year-long pilot program, Philadelphia is to begin installing 250 new police surveillance cameras next month, with the first to go up at a violence-plagued intersection in West Philadelphia, Mayor Street said yesterday.

Street announced the signing of an $8.9 million contract with Unisys Corp. to install the digital video cameras over the next 12 months — with another 250 expected by 2009. First in line: 52d and Market Streets, a hotspot for robberies, assaults and shootings.

The cameras will be wireless, highly visible to deter criminals, and monitored by a new class of civilian police workers. The devices represent the best aspects of two types of cameras used in a pilot program that began in July 2006 with 18 cameras at 12 locations, according to police.

An Inquirer analysis of police statistics during the pilot project showed that violent crime went down by 37 percent at eight intersections with cameras featuring a bright-blue strobe light announcing their presence. Those cameras were monitored only occasionally; their data could be retrieved if needed.

Places with cameras without the blue light, which were monitored by police around the clock at four intersections, showed an increase in crime. Police said that was because they were making additional arrests — 60 over the past year — as a direct result of the cameras.

City Council members Darrell Clarke and Donna Reed Miller promised legislation that would authorize funds for another 250 cameras next year — 500 altogether by 2009.

Both mayoral candidates, Democrat Michael Nutter and Republican Al Taubenberger, support the camera program, and it has been a central piece of Street's anti-crime initiatives.

Street cautioned that increased surveillance was no panacea for the city's violence problem.

But he noted what police have found in the year-long pilot project - if cameras are visible, crime will go down.

"You put a camera on a corner and you have a different corner," Street said.

Last week, police watched a Temple University student being robbed, and swooped in to arrest his attackers thanks to a camera, Deputy Police Commissioner John Gaittens said. With another camera, they spotted five houses hooked into one electric line and called in code enforcement.

Critics argue that cameras can move crime around but not make it go away. Street acknowledged that such shifts may happen. But police hope to focus on business corridors, recreation centers, schools, transportation hubs — anywhere people gather — to make those places safer.

"It's not a police officer, but it helps," Miller said.

Other concerns include privacy issues. The new cameras will have a blackout feature that will not allow them to look at second-story windows or above, Gaittens said. Managing Director Loree Jones is assembling a task force to draft a privacy policy for the cameras' use.

City officials are still discussing the use of the blue light — welcomed as a beacon of safety by some, rejected as a glaring nuisance by others. Terry Phillis, the city's information technology director, said cameras will be clearly marked by lights or signs so they will be on the front of criminals' minds.

Street said he will look to police to decide on locations for the first 250 cameras, with input from City Council and his office.

The list of other sites has yet been approved, Gaittens said. Eventually, they will be used all over the city, Gaittens said. Some Council members even want cameras focused on favorite dumping areas to catch people in the act.

After the first 500 cameras, the cost of each will be cut more than half as the system's infrastructure is in place. Officials would not offer an estimate of the cost of staffing, as they are still determining their needs. The four intersections now being constantly monitored are manned by police on restricted duty.

Copyright 2007 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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