ST. LOUIS • Mere hours after the public release of grainy surveillance camera images in the Boston Marathon bombings, law enforcement officials had pinpointed suspects in one of the nation’s most horrific terrorist acts.
It was a stunning and swift break in the case, one that illustrates the potency surveillance photos have for the public and police in solving crime.
For Howard Richards, the images captured in Boston are validation of a three-year project in St. Louis to link 150 surveillance cameras into a single security system throughout the city’s central corridor, from the riverfront to Forest Park.
“Without those images, they would not have been able to solve this thing as quickly, there are no two ways about it,” Richards said of the Boston case. “You can’t overestimate the value of this technology.”
Richards is head of security at Harris-Stowe State University and chairs monthly meetings of the Central Corridor Security Group, formed about three years ago. The group eventually brought on United for a Better St. Louis, a nonprofit organization formed in 2011 to enhance public safety efforts, to lead a fundraising campaign.
The St. Louis project would form a common network out of cameras operated by a host of entities, such as the city’s port authority and street department, the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, the Locust Business District and the Central West End.
The security system, which organizers hope to have in place in about three months, would equip police with tablet computers and software allowing officers to look through any of the cameras on the network. With newer cameras, police would be able to zoom, pan and tilt to get a better view.
“It’s going to make us cutting-edge and on board with other big cities in the country,” said Michael Gerdine, a chiropractor and chairman of United for a Better St. Louis.
Cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas use the technology, and their systems have been reviewed for the St. Louis project. New York operates a “Ring of Steel” that trains an estimated 3,000 cameras on Lower Manhattan. Boston has a network of cameras throughout its city and transit system.
London — known for its ubiquitous security cameras — has also seen how surveillance images can lead to a swift resolution to terrorism investigations. In 2005, terrorism suspects were quickly identified with such images. Weeks later, a failed group of bombers was also caught, thanks to the cameras.
In Baltimore, the cameras have been a valuable tool in prosecuting crimes, and have been successful in reducing crime in trouble spots, said Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
“We love them. It’s a really great system,” Guglielmi said. Still, he said, “they are in no way designed to replace those on patrol.”
Research further backs up the value that surveillance cameras have in solving crime.
In St. Louis, the project grew out of meetings between members of the Locust Business District and the Downtown Partnership over security concerns. Expanding and linking camera systems was proposed as a way to not only help solve crime, but prevent it.
From those early discussions, the Central Corridor Security Group was formed. The group’s board includes representatives of the Downtown Partnership, Grand Center Inc., St. Louis University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Two St. Louis police captains are on the board. Representatives of Metro, Sigma-Aldrich and Wells Fargo also attend meetings.
Maggie Campbell, president of the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, said live monitoring of cameras has been happening downtown for about five years.
“But if we can grow it and leverage it with our neighboring business districts, then we can make it work better for everyone,” she said. “It’s all about multiplying the eyes that are watching.”
No public funds are being sought in the startup of the program, and the cameras would be limited to public areas.
“We all decided it would be a good idea to basically look out for each other,” Richards said.
But increasing cameras and the number of people allowed to monitor them concerns privacy advocates.
John Chasnoff, program director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, said that if crime prevention is the ultimate goal, it makes more sense to spend money on increased lighting and foot patrols than surveillance cameras.
Startup cost for the St. Louis project is estimated at $500,000, which covers the purchase of 10 tablets and 10 cameras, including two portable ones that could be placed in areas with sudden spikes in crime. The annual cost of maintaining and monitoring the system is unclear.
Baltimore spends nearly $1.5 million a year to operate its system of about 600 cameras, with public and private money. That system, launched in 2005, is monitored by a control room staffed 24 hours daily by retired police officers and others with law enforcement training. Cameras also are accessible at police precincts and by four police helicopters.
A key piece of the St. Louis system is that an officer who gets a call about an incident can quickly log on and view images from an area before arriving on the scene, said Ron Smith, whose SAG Consulting is working with United for a Better St. Louis on the project.
“It’s situation management,” said Smith, former operations director for Mayor Francis Slay.
The largest cluster of cameras in the network would be the 91 currently being installed in the Central West End. Washington University Medical Center and the special business districts of the neighborhood pooled about $750,000 to buy and install the cameras.
All the cameras should be up and running by the end of June, said Brooks Goedeker, development manager for the medical center and board president of the Central West End Neighborhood Security Initiative.
To get ready for the wider initiative, organizers linked 57 cameras downtown and in the Locust Business District about nine months ago.
They are monitored during business hours by employees of the downtown Community Improvement District, which is managed by Campbell’s organization. Police, however, have limited access to the current system.
Smith said the program was started on a small scale to work out any kinks, including trying out software the provider offered for free on a limited basis.
NO SILVER BULLET
Privacy law expert Neil M. Richards, a professor at Washington University, said broad surveillance systems raise questions over who can watch, what is being looked for and what is done with the information.
“We have to carefully watch the watchers or we could end up with a level of public surveillance that nobody wants,” Richards said. “The issue isn’t that we don’t want cameras but what kind of security state do we want and what privacy are we going to give up for it?”
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson supports linking the cameras. He says cameras have proven to be effective in prosecuting crimes, but they must be monitored around the clock or they have little value in crime prevention.
Dotson points to a study by two University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professors on cameras in the city’s 21st Ward, which includes College Hill and O’Fallon Park.
The unpublished report from October found that cameras, when first installed, reduced crime. But as neighborhoods become accustomed to them,“crime tends to move back to where it was,” Dotson said.
There could be a couple of reasons for that, said Rick Rosenfeld, one of the UMSL professors.
“Initially, there is a lot of publicity and that may have helped to generate the crime decline,” he said. “It also could be monitoring of the cameras was more rigorous during the first few months.”
The cameras in the 21st Ward are monitored through a police substation. They are not part of the central corridor security plan.
One downside to cameras, Dotson said, is that they can provide a false sense of security. People should not let their guard down just because cameras are present, he said.
“I don’t know of any bank that doesn’t have video cameras, and banks are robbed on a daily basis,” Dotson said.
A report from the Urban Institute in September 2011 provides a cautionary tale about security camera systems similar to the one being proposed in St. Louis.
“Surveillance cameras alone are not a silver bullet, but simply another crime control and investigative tool,” states the report, based on a review of systems in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington. “Public surveillance technology is only as good as the manner in which it is employed.”