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Wash. county invests $4M in Real Time Crime Center to deliver precision policing

Spokane County’s RTCC could monitor as many as 200 video feeds from intersections, roadways and crime hotspots


By Colin Tiernan
The Spokesman-Review

SPOKANE, Wash. — For years, law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. have used real-time crime centers to monitor hundreds or thousands of live video feeds and relay all sorts of time-sensitive information to officers in the field. Practically speaking, they are little more than big rooms, full of big TV screens, watched by trained operators.

And now, Spokane County is getting one.

“It’ll be the intelligence nerve center of our agencies here in Spokane County,” said Lt. Justin Elliott, commander of the intelligence unit for the Sheriff’s Office.

The Spokane County Commission last year dedicated nearly $4 million to the real-time crime center project, and the Spokane Valley City Council has committed $850,000. Both governments used money they received through the American Rescue Plan, a federal stimulus bill aimed at helping the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

That money will pay for four new employees, new cameras and a long list of electronic equipment. Construction will cost about $350,000, paid for out of the county’s general fund, and could be completed by the end of the year. The facility will be on the second floor of the county’s Public Safety Building, behind the courthouse.

In a March 13 presentation to the Spokane County Commission, Sheriff’s Office staff said the real-time crime center will prioritize solving and preventing violent crimes. Elliott said the center will also make it easier to catch burglars and help solve a wide range of cases. For instance, it could improve law enforcement’s ability to find missing people.

If it’s successful, Elliott said the real-time crime center will allow law enforcement to solve cases faster and prevent crimes before they happen. He said he hopes the investment will improve case clearance rates by 25%.

“The bigger idea is precision-policing, where we’re identifying the actual criminal suspect and not swinging a net for everybody in the area and then collecting them,” Elliott said.

[RELATED: How real-time crime centers use technology to stop crime]

Elliott and Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels both said they don’t believe the real-time crime center presents any privacy concerns. They emphasized that the Sheriff’s Office won’t use the center for traffic enforcement or run the video footage through facial recognition programs. The data storage system will delete video and license plate reader photos after 30 days.

Spokane County Commissioner Chris Jordan, a Democrat who represents Spokane’s western district, said he believes the real-time crime center could be a boon, but he also wants to ensure it doesn’t unreasonably invade anyone’s privacy.

“I think it holds the potential to bring swifter justice to victims and reduce the risk of any wrongful prosecution,” he said, “but I do have questions about privacy and oversight of the use of video technology.”

But even if the Sheriff’s Office wanted to keep tabs on everyone all the time, it couldn’t, Elliott and Nowels said.

“It’s not a, ‘We’re keeping an eye on every single person’s move,’ ” Elliott said. “That is not our goal — not our ability.”

Julie Humphreys, a spokeswoman for the Spokane Police Department, said the agency sees the value in the real-time crime center, but doesn’t plan to be a part of it or start one of its own.

[RELATED: The 3 fundamentals of an effective real-time crime center]

Exactly which video feeds the real-time crime center will track isn’t yet known. Elliott said the county is hiring a consultant who will help identify which feeds throughout the county have the most value.

The real-time crime center might end up monitoring about 200 video feeds, mainly showing intersections and roadways in Spokane Valley and unincorporated Spokane County. The Valley plans to add about 50 new cameras in its parks, and the county plans to place about 50 in high-priority areas. Mobile surveillance trailers, which agencies can place in crime hot spots, will sync up to the system, too.

“We’re not going to grab every camera in the whole county and put it in here,” Elliott said. “There’s a cost to every video feed for us, so we need to be judicious.”

David Makin, an associate professor in Washington State University’s criminal justice and criminology department, said real-time crime centers have had varying levels of success.

In order to know whether they work, Makin said, agencies need to track when they help solve cases that couldn’t have been solved otherwise. Elliott said the Sheriff’s Office intends to carefully record that data.

Makin also said agencies have to ensure they use the surveillance technology ethically.

“You have to have very, very clear safeguards that deal with transparency and accountability,” he said, adding that law enforcement officials need to explain what they’re doing to the public.

“We very rarely talk to the communities where this technology will be employed,” he said. “That’s the mistake. That’s the fundamental failure.”

Elliott said the Sheriff’s Office will release reports explaining how the real-time crime center has helped solve cases.

Wayne Unger, a Gonzaga University professor who specializes in Constitutional and data privacy law, said live video feeds of public property don’t raise any privacy issues.

“The general rule for police surveillance is that once a person steps foot onto public property, whether that’s a sidewalk or a road, they lose all expectations of privacy,” Unger said.

Unger said that whenever technology merely duplicates a job a police officer could do on their own, courts haven’t typically objected.

Using more advanced technologies, such as infrared or night vision cameras, can require warrants, however, Unger said. Collecting certain types of data, for long periods of time, can require a judge’s approval, too.

Unger said present-day legal discussions about privacy often focus on facial recognition software and advanced video analysis algorithms.

“There’s a lot of conversation about the racial implications,” he said, noting that facial recognition is generally less accurate for people of color.

The Sheriff’s Office wants people to be aware of its cameras, Elliott said, noting that many are marked by bright blue lights. He added that the real-time crime center, and video surveillance in general, can serve as a powerful crime deterrent.

Elliott said that, in his mind, the project could bring enormous benefits and won’t create any privacy issues.

“We’re not even close to being nervous about that, but we do keep on it and we’re sensitive to what the perception in the community is,” he said. “Our most important thing is they perceive they’re safe.”

NEXT: Crime surging? Here’s how technology can help

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