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Orlando downtown to get ‘smart’ cameras

By Mark Schlueb
The Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO — If you ever get the feeling you’re being watched, you might be right.

Officials announced plans Monday to blanket downtown Orlando and Parramore with 60 so-called “smart cameras” capable of automatically detecting suspicious activity and alerting police.

The cameras will be able to tell whether too many people are standing near an ATM, a car is driving the wrong way on a one-way street, or a suspicious package has been left unattended on the sidewalk.

“It immediately alerts us to something that is out of place, and that’s really what crime prevention is about,” Orlando police Chief Val Demings said. “We will be watching 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The $1.3 million system will have about 25 cameras operational by July, with the rest in place by the end of the year.

Orlando is the first city in Central Florida to deploy a smart-camera system, but they’re already in use in cities such as Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Orlando officials traveled to Minneapolis to learn about the camera system in that city, where officials claim sharp drops in crime as a result.

Orlando already has 13 cameras watching downtown and crime hot spots in Parramore. They were installed about six months ago as part of a test program using funds from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Rev. Charles Jackson, pastor of Hurst Chapel in Parramore, credits one of those cameras mounted at Bentley Street and Lee Avenue with practically eliminating a stubborn street-level drug trade near his church.

“Three months ago, at any given time of day after 10 in the morning, it was like a mall,” he said. “Now the entire dynamic of the street has changed, from one end to the other.”

The new cameras will be wireless, so they can be moved around to focus on problem areas. They will use “video analytics” technology, allowing them to be programmed to recognize movement that would be unusual for a certain location.

In a parking garage, for example, the cameras could be set to ignore someone walking to their car but to alert an officer if someone lingers in one spot by the stairwell for several minutes looking for a victim to rob. In another location, police can draw a virtual box on a corner known for drug traffic, and a camera will alert an officer if a certain number of people linger within that area for more than 10 minutes, for instance.

Supporters say the “smart cameras” solve the weak link of traditional surveillance-camera systems: the fatigued human operator, who must constantly monitor dozens of cameras to look for suspicious behavior. The new cameras will spot the behavior automatically, then alert an officer watching a bank of screens at police headquarters by “pushing” the video image to the front.

“It gives one officer the ability to watch hundreds of cameras at the same time,” said Detective Jeff Blye, who is overseeing the Orlando program.

Dispatchers can then alert an officer in the area, who can access the live video from the laptop computer in his patrol car.

George Crossley of the police watchdog group CopWatch and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union worries that the camera system could be abused, leading to a Big Brother-style invasion of privacy. He said the city should post signs around the cameras so residents know they’re being watched.

“It’s a laudable ambition to fight crime,” said Crossley, who himself served time in prison for trying to hire a hit man and has become a civil-liberties advocate since his release in 2001. “Unfortunately, CopWatch has found that when law enforcement asks us to give an inch, they always take a mile.”

City leaders answered privacy questions by pointing out that the cameras will be mounted only in public places.

“If you’re not doing anything you shouldn’t be doing, this is not going to be invading your privacy,” Mayor Buddy Dyer said.

The new system will be partially funded by donations from the business community, with the rest coming from city coffers. Contributions so far include $200,000 from Target and $50,000 from Darden Restaurants. During the past few years, Target has helped fund community crime-prevention programs in at least 15 cities, most of which include camera systems.

The program was modeled after Britain, where the use of closed-circuit cameras is widespread; the country has an estimated 5 million public and private cameras, or about one for every 12 people. Britain’s camera system was used to identify the culprits who bombed London’s transit system in 2005.

The company’s program has been “extremely successful” in the U.S., according to Target’s Mike Prewitt.

“Most of these places are seeing high-double-digit decreases in crime,” he said.

Orlando officials hope to eventually expand the system to include the International Drive tourist strip -- but that would take more private contributions.

Copyright 2008 The Orlando Sentinel