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La. sheriff’s office launches real-time surveillance center to improve crime response

The center has access to about 1,700 cameras including traffic, surveillance and private security cameras

Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office surveillance

Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office

By Katie Gagliano
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

LAFAYETTE PARISH, La. — The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office has created a one-stop access point for surveillance technology with its Real Time Crime Center, which uses video surveillance to increase how law enforcement responds to crimes and solves cases.

The center, which opened about six months ago, is housed in former records department space at the agency’s West Main Street office. It includes four agent work stations with multi-monitor setups and a main command wall with monitors showing split-screen feeds of real-time footage from surveillance cameras around the parish.

Captain Jack Lightfoot, the executive officer of the support services division, said the center was conceptualized four years ago and has been in active development for 18 months. He served as the project manager.

Lightfoot and others researched the needed technology, reviewed floor plans for similar centers from Tennessee to Texas and toured the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office and Baton Rouge Police Department’s facilities to inform the center’s design.

“This sheriff ... wants to be a trailblazer. He said from day one — ‘Technology, training, equipment — those are my priorities,’ and he’s following up on it,” Lightfoot said.

The captain estimates the center currently has access to 1,700 cameras around the parish, a combination of traffic cameras, public surveillance cameras from multiple law enforcement agencies and private security cameras, as well as in-unit dash cameras in sheriff’s office vehicles and deputies’ body worn cameras.

Body worn and in-unit cameras are still being integrated into the system. Once complete, the system will feature about 2,000 cameras accessible through the center, he said.

No new cameras have been installed to support the center, Lightfoot said.

The goal is to use the center to increase how efficiently deputies respond to crimes and emergency situations while maximizing use of the department’s manpower. With a limited pool of existing officers and potential recruits, Lightfoot said, making the most of technology to extend deputies’ reach is a priority.

The real-time aspect means the center’s agents can monitor deputy activity and keep eyes and ears on a situation when a deputy is alone, essentially serving as virtual backup. The agents can pull information on a subject in question, watch for surprises and contact backup if needed, he said.

It’s not the answer in all cases, but in low-risk situations it can save diverting manpower away from other tasks while helping the deputy to feel safe.

“Instead of this deputy who’s driving around in your neighborhood patrolling right now, leaving to go back up this deputy on this traffic stop, (the patrolling deputy) can continue and he’s still visually backed up,” Lightfoot said, gesturing to a screen showing a traffic stop in progress.

The center is currently manned daily by team supervisor Staff Sgt. Bobby Goodrich and two agents. A typical day, Goodrich said, involves assisting in real-time calls and researching recent crimes for LPSO investigators and surrounding agencies who pass on information about open investigations.

“It’s a resource not just for the sheriff’s office but for all the surrounding agencies and parishes,” he said. “We assist anybody we can. We look at pass ons from other agencies and parishes and we’ll start digging into their investigation for them and pass on any information that we find or come across that could potentially help with their case.”

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Compared with an officer on the street, now the department can see more and see it quicker because they have a bird’s eye view of the area through the camera network. They also don’t have to worry about the safety of their surroundings from the office, Goodrich said.

“As the call is coming out, we’re already digging into it to see if we can find anything,” he said.

Agents recently used information gathered from area security cameras to coordinate the capture of a man who tried to kidnap a child at a Dollar General in Scott. In under an hour, the center’s agents were able to track the man’s progress along Interstate 10 and work with other law enforcement agencies to secure his arrest as he was entering Duson.

“Five years ago we would have gotten five different descriptions of what the car looked like,” Goodrich said. “In 2022, we’re going to get five different photographs.”

Agent Dustin Roger, one of the center’s full-time staffers, said in past weeks he’s tapped into surveillance footage to identify a suspect who stole checks out of a Broussard business’s mailbox and forged one to steal thousands of dollars.

He’s also used the technology to assist the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office in tracking a teenager wanted on a second-degree murder warrant who entered Lafayette Parish. Deputies were waiting and swiftly took the teen into custody without incident, Roger said.

Other suspects, including a man who pulled a gun on an elderly driver who honked at him while attempting to pass in the street and a man out on bond in multiple murder cases — were located and apprehended safely.

Having as much information as possible on the suspect’s whereabouts, whether they’re armed and if they’re alone or not helps make arrests safer for the suspects, officers and bystanders, Lightfoot said.

The captain said the center is at roughly 15-20% of its total capability, both in terms of manpower and technology. The sheriff’s office is working with software and systems providers to beta test customizations to their systems, he said.

One example is CommandCentral Aware from Motorola Solutions.

When completed, the system will allow the team to auto-populate high priority calls from the parish’s 911 dispatch onto the command wall. The software will show the call location on a map, automatically identify the nearest accessible cameras and pull up those feeds, and identify the nearest available units to dispatch to the scene to speed response, Goodrich and Lightfoot said.

“We’re trying to eliminate the lag time of dispatch processing where this is, what’s going on, who do I have available and things of that nature,” Lightfoot said. “We’re trying to compress that. If you’re talking about a critical incident, 60 seconds is a tremendous amount (of time).”

In its expanded form, the Real Time Crime team will also be able to onboard interested residents who want LPSO to have access to their home or business security systems. That option won’t be rolled out for a while; the agency wants to wait until getting people integrated into the system is a simple process, the captain said.

Lightfoot said the eventual plan is for participants to set parameters for the agents’ access, with options ranging from all the time to only when a phone number associated with the residence or business calls 911 or an alarm activates, either at the site or nearby. The cameras would only be tapped into when a crime happens and people could opt out at any time, he said.

“Suzie Public is helping us,” Lightfoot said. “So we need to make her comfortable.”

The captain said the sheriff’s office is aware the concept of the center could make some residents uncomfortable.

Lightfoot cautioned that the center strictly has access to the video feeds and can download clips as necessary to enter into evidence. Copies of the full video feeds and non-relevant footage are not stored at the sheriff’s office in any form, he said.

The center also has checks and balances for use of video footage, requiring agents to explain why an intel report was created on a vehicle or person and why selected footage was viewed. They’re reviewed in routine audits, Lightfoot said.

Goodrich said he thinks the benefits outweigh the concerns.

Prior to the center’s launch, the staff sergeant’s home was targeted in a burglary and the law enforcement officer said he saw the difference that quick action and available surveillance footage made in recovering his family’s stolen property.

The center takes that application further, allowing the agency and other law enforcement quick, centralized access to potential evidence in cases, he said.

The time difference between that quick access and deputies walking an area trying to individually identify cameras and collect and review all potentially relevant footage could mean the difference between recovering your belongings and never seeing them again, the staff sergeant said.

“It’s not a benefit to your average person until they’re a victim of a crime and then at that point they’ll see how useful it is,” Goodrich said.

The supervisor estimated in their first six months the center’s team has helped recover roughly $1 million in stolen property, ranging from equipment taken from lawn maintenance companies to vehicles. The video footage helps more quickly fill in the unknowns — who, when, where, how — so investigators can recover the property before it’s sold, dumped or stripped for parts, he said.

The center’s quick click access to footage can also help avert crime, he said.

Goodrich and Lightfoot said the agents received a tip that a student at an area high school was planning to bring a gun to campus after getting in a disagreement with another student.

Agents used the tip on the teen’s route to school to tap into neighborhood cameras until they found him. Recordings showed the teen remove a handgun from his backpack and hide it in his waistband while walking to school. Deputies and school resource officers were able to apprehend the teen before he arrived to campus armed, Lightfoot said.

“What was he going to do — we don’t know. But do we want to know? Again, these are things that five years ago would have required a whole different response. We would have had to lock down the school, set up a perimeter, 800 parents are calling asking what’s going on,” he said.

“It doesn’t get any smoother than this,” the captain said, staring at a replay of the teen’s detainment.

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