April 7, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
Eyeing technology as a way to deter and fight crime, Pittsburgh recently submitted a federal application to install 220 cameras, enough to cover nearly every neighborhood.
In a joint request with the Community College of Allegheny County and Carnegie Mellon University, the city asked for $12 million to $14 million in Broadband Technology Opportunities Program funds, being dispensed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to buy security cameras, install a wireless network to operate them and create software to filter the content.
"Going after this money is a way for the mayor [Luke Ravenstahl] to fulfill his dream to put cameras all over the city," said City CIO Howard Stern. "He feels very strongly that cameras are a strong deterrent to crime -- unfortunately they cost a lot of money."
And they've already proven to be more than a crime deterrent -- they've helped law enforcement identify suspects in high-profile cases. The most recent example is two teenage boys arrested April 1 in connection to the March 14 murder of a retired firefighter.
"This is a system that we'll use when we need it," Stern said of the monitoring system, which is not manned 24 hours a day and is only accessible by authorized personnel. "I can't even look at it," Stern added.
The camera system recognizes loud noises such as gunshots or car backfires, Stern said, and will alert police to such incidents. But they don't, and legally can't record conversations, so the monitoring system records decibel levels and triggers an alert when they hit a specific range, he said.
The city started installing cameras two years ago, through a $2.4 million Department of Homeland Security grant aimed at protecting its waterways, ports and rivers, Stern said. Mayor Ravenstahl, who made an initiative to curb crime, wanted "to get cameras everywhere." So city staff brought in experts from the local college and university to discuss obtaining funds to have cameras spread citywide and make the city wireless.
Before installing the cameras, Stern created a policy that addressed concerns such as the length of time footage would be kept, how the cameras would be used and privacy issues. It took him a year to flesh out a policy that addressed all stakeholders' concerns, including the American Civil Liberties Union, who opposed the entire concept, Stern said.
"The ACLU said, 'We hate this program, but if you're going to have to have cameras, this is as good as it gets,'" he said. "They hate this but realize it's a fact of life and feel the policy we developed was tolerable."
The city also had to address citizen concerns, who don't like the idea of "Big Brother" spying on them, Stern said. The cameras won't be used to watch women walking down the street or listen in on people's conversations -- conclusions many jump to.
"The beauty of the system is we can move cameras to new high-crime areas at minimal expense," Stern said. "We're hoping and are optimistic that we'll get it."
To view the city's press release on the subject, visit the Web site.