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Ala. police will fight crime with all-seeing live technology

A $1.5 million approval is pending for the city of Birmingham to have a Real Time Crime Center

Carol Robinson
Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Shots rang out one Friday morning last month in the lobby of a downtown Memphis hotel, shattering the predawn stillness.

A man, wearing a black shirt, black pants and camouflage backpack, entered the Hilton Garden Inn and fired shots at the security guard after a dispute over whether he had a room there. He fled on foot.

The midnight shift officers staffing the Memphis Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center – the hub of an extensive citywide surveillance camera network – jumped into action. As the department’s “eyes in the sky,” they were quickly able to direct officers on the suspect’s escape route.

“We can start working a scene before the first officer even gets on the scene,’’ said Memphis police Lt. Byron Braxton.

In minutes, surveillance photos of the suspect had been posted to social media and, in just a matter of hours, a 26-year-old traveler from Chicago was in custody.

The arrest was a textbook example of the value of a Real Time Crime Center, which Memphis launched more than a decade ago. The Birmingham Police Department is poised to follow suit pending approval of $1.5 million in the City of Birmingham’s capital budget proposed by Mayor Randall Woodfin.

“What we’re trying to do is build a system here for public safety in the future, as in, how will we police Birmingham in the future?” said Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith.

The state-of-the art facility will be modeled after those elsewhere. Birmingham police officials have visited Real Time Crime Centers at the Chicago, Detroit and New York City police departments, with plans to also travel to Memphis.

“We want to make sure we’re being very wise in how we spend our dollars,’’ Smith said. “We want to get the technology that we know is going to work in our crime centers.”

The intelligence-led command center will be housed on the fourth floor of Birmingham Police Headquarters on First Avenue North and, in appearance, will resemble the Jefferson Metro Area Crime Center with a wall-sized bank of video screens, computers and other technology.

“This will give us a live look back into our Real Time Crime Center so that we’re able to take a look at what’s happening in various areas across the city so that we’re getting information to our officers quickly,’’ Smith said. “It is getting real-time information out to our officers as they are responding to calls.”

That information, for example, could include almost immediate video or photos of crime suspects and their vehicles and license plates instead of just a verbal description. As part of the center’s creation, Birmingham police officials are looking at new body-worn cameras and license plate readers that all tie in. Automated license plate readers are high-speed, computer-controlled camera systems that are typically mounted on utility poles, streetlights, highway overpasses, mobile trailers, or attached to squad cars. ALPRs capture all license plate numbers that come into view, along with the location, date, and time. The data, which includes photographs of the vehicle and sometimes its driver and passengers, is then uploaded to a central server.

“Our goal is to install them at critical intersections in the city, the really critical arteries we know people have to go through,’’ Smith said. “We’ve just got to become a lot smarter on crime and get on the technological wave of solving crime in real time.”

The readers help in every level of crime from stolen vehicles to tracking violent suspects. Memphis’ Braxton said the readers are the real crime solvers. “The camera records the crime,’’ he said, “but the license plate reader solves it.”

As part of the project, officials are looking at new body worn camera technology that will allow them to remotely turn on and off body worn cameras. “As things are happening – emergency calls – we’re able to turn it on remotely from here so that we can see the interaction as it occurs,’’ Smith said. “We’re able through the use of the computer to form a GEO fence around the area and every officer who drives within the GEO fence, their body worn camera will automatically come on, as well as their vehicle dashcam. That way we can get a full scope of what is happening from various points of view.”

“We pull up the map, we draw a circle around that area and everyone who drives within that area, their cameras will automatically activate,’’ he said. “We will be able to see what is happening on the screen, even remotely, to better be able to direct our officers. If one of the officers was talking to the suspect and he takes off running, well the last picture of that suspect can be sent out to the other officers responding to the scene, so they know exactly who they are looking for.”

The Metro Area Crime Center launched in 2016 and is made up of lawmen from most of the police agencies in Jefferson County. Birmingham police are a part of MACC and will remain a part of MACC.

Smith said the difference between the two centers is that MACC zeroes in on an investigation after a crime or incident has occurred and the Real Time Crime Center focuses on incidents while they are happening.

“The MACC can help you enhance video that you’ve taken from a gas station where a crime occurred, they can help you with investigative leads, they can help you get some of the mobile trailers out to a location where things have occurred,’’ the chief said. “The Real Time Crime Center is about now.”

It will also work with the city’s 911 Center so that when a call comes in, operators should be able to pull up the address and see if that address is part of the camera network.

Last year, The Birmingham City Council approved entering into a contract with Alabama Power for a pilot program to install 95 surveillance cameras in areas designated by the police department based on crime trends. The cameras work in conjunction with the city’s expanded ShotSpotter system.

ShotSpotter detects gunfire using an array of outdoor acoustic sensors. The sensors are paired with software that triangulates and pinpoints the location of the gunfire. The system notifies law enforcement of the location of the gunfire, the number of shots fired and other details within 60 seconds.

The Alabama Power cameras are used in conjunction with the Real Time Crime Center, as will other cameras that will be purchased. Smith said he doesn’t yet know how many of the cameras will be placed throughout the city. Chicago, he said, has about 35,000 cameras. Memphis has about 2,100 cameras in 650 locations.

Businesses throughout the city will also be able to sign on to the Real Time Crime Center. They will have to have cameras at the business that are internet-based and give Birmingham police access to those cameras. “If they don’t have net-based camera system, they would work with us to get on the network and work with us to install cameras that work with the system,’’ Smith said.

In Memphis, police provide crime statistics and crime trends to the council there and they decide where the cameras will be placed. In some instances, Braxton said, neighborhood associations have pooled their own money or obtained grants to buy their own cameras to tie into the police network.

Birmingham Assistant Police Chief Allen Treadaway said the potential for growth is unlimited. “The more eyes out there, the safer the city is going to be,’’ he said.

When Treadaway visited Chicago’s crime center, he watched as a patrol car was dispatched to a scene where drug deals were taking place. “Before the cops arrived, one of the individuals moved his gun to another individual who then hid it by a garbage can,’’ he said. “They (the crime center) were watching it and when the officers arrived on the scene, they knew exactly where the gun was.”

“This is a huge safety issue and we knew exactly who handled the gun,’’ Treadaway said. “The list of possibilities goes on and on here. The main thing is it makes the communities safer by having this technology out there.”

The technology, police said, will help out immensely at special events like The World Games in 2021 and also boost officer safety. “That’s one of the most important elements – letting people know what you truly have before they get there,’’ Smith said. “The other part is being able to let everyone know if an officer is in a struggle or fight and needs assistance. They don’t have to reach for the radio – we can do it from afar.”

The city is at least a year out from making the center a reality, though equipment as it is purchased will immediately be put to use. In all, Smith said, roughly $3 million is needed to get fully up and running. He hopes another $1.5 million will be added to next year’s budget as well. “As businesses and neighborhood associations come on board,’’ he said, “the system will pay for itself in reduction of crime.”

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings has a mantra: “No one should have to call us to tell us something is happening. We should already know it.”

Braxton said the Real Time Crime Center helps to make that possible. “If you want to keep your finger on the pulse of crime,’’ he said, “it’s the way to go.”


©2019 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham