Use of Cincinnati's network of closed-circuit cameras increases annually

CINCINNATI - High atop a hill in South Fairmount, Cincinnati police officers are examining video and digital data to help officers on the ground solve crimes.

The Cincinnati Police department is increasingly depending on video footage retrieved from the city’s system of closed-circuit surveillance cameras for criminal investigations. Officers assigned to the real-time crime center also scrutinize social media, tap into internal databases and provide additional information for investigators conducting shoe-leather investigations.

No local tax dollars has been spent on the purchase and installation of the city’s cameras. There were no city-allocated funds used for the project, except for the salaries of the employees who work at the center located in the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency on Radcliff Drive.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings, when surveillance video was integral to finding and identifying two suspects, lawmakers and law enforcement officials have called for far-reaching use of cameras. But there are few guidelines their use in Cincinnati.

Video Usage Increases Annually

Since neighborhood crime cameras were first installed in the Central Business District in 2009, they have become standard a investigative tool, and police detectives are relying on them more than ever.

The six officers at the real-time crime center have pulled video from the city’s 130 cameras 74 times through Aug. 1. That’s compared to 93 in all of 2012 and 57 times in 2011, according to Lt. Lisa Thomas, supervisor of CPD’s intelligence unit.

“Under FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] anyone can request video – we mainly deal with CPD detectives, but attorneys and citizens also call for copies,” Thomas said.

The increase in video requests is a result of an increased number of cameras CPD has access to, as well as  better awareness of their presence, officials said. There were eight cameras installed in 2009 and that number has grown to approximately 130 today, said Barry Whitton, intelligence analyst with the CPD’s intelligence unit.

In 2008, the city was awarded an Edward Byrne Memorial Grant for $1,967,566 for the installation of neighborhood cameras, which are throughout the city.  The city also received private donations for the neighborhood camera project. Uptown Consortium, Inc., donated $122,000, Target Corporation donated $250,000 and the University of Cincinnati donated $157,601.75.

CPD forged partnerships in recent years with Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, The Banks, the University of Cincinnati, community councils and the Ohio Department of Transportation, to either access cameras their cameras or install cameras on their properties, Whitton said. The Banks operates 36 cameras, but plans call for the installation of approximately 90 more by Spring 2014.

The city has access to partner organizations’ cameras and operates them, officials said.

“Knowledge of that fact that they’re out there, like a new tool, has increased their use,” Whitton said. “The more people know that they’re there from a public safety standpoint, there is more conceivable reason to request video.”

Through a series of Port Security Grant Program grants, a functions of the Department of Homeland Security, CPD is able to access and operate some 25 cameras along the Ohio River, There are plans to increase the that number to 30 and to have surveillance stretching west to the Caroll C. Cropper Bridge and east to Combs-Hehl Bridge, Whitton said. From 2007 to 2010, the city received four grants each year, totaling $2,142,690.

Where The Camera System Is Going

The trend in surveillance will continue, officials said.

District 2 Capt. Jeff Butler said the police department is willing to expand its access to cameras from community partners. The department already has 50 private and public partnerships, he said.

“We’ve been very aggressive in seeking grant funding and very little, if any, city funds are going into this massive project,” Butler said. “It’s a regional project, this is isn’t for the Cincinnati Police Department.”

Because Cincinnati is the largest municipality in the region, much of the onus of monitoring and operating falls on the real-time crime center. If a neighboring city needs access to the cameras, for a water rescue in the river for instance, the city grants limited access to the neighboring agency.

“Cincinnati’s the big fish in the water and we have very talented people and they are driving force of the system,” Butler said. “Their sweat-equity has made the system very successful.”

Eventually, first responders to a crime scene or to a water rescue will be able to view and operate nearby cameras on a mobile device, but that is still in development, Butler said. CPD will assign access rights for a limited time to neighboring agencies.

Live Monitoring and Video Retention

Officers are not monitoring the city’s cameras 24 hours per day. Instead, CPD uses the cameras mostly as a reactive

tool to assist on-the-ground investigations.

If video is required for an investigation, the real-time crime center “bookmarks” footage to prevent it from being erased. If video is required for a court hearing, CPD archives it and provides copies for investigators and attorneys, Thomas said.

“It deletes, by the second, at 14 days unless it was bookmarked,” Thomas said. “There are no laws governing retention, this is just what we decided was a relevant time period. 

“If someone doesn't know about a crime or doesn't need footage within that span, they probably never will. It also takes up a great amount of server space to retain them.”

Video that is not bookmarked is eventually overwritten on CPD’s servers. During the process of policy development in 2007, CPD met with the city solicitor’s office, the county prosecutor, the Ohio Public Records Commission and examined policies from other agencies, to determine a video retention schedule. The Ohio Public Records Commission eventually approved the 14-day data retention schedule, Butler said.
If a camera has been moved, turned off or adjusted in anyway that is out of the norm, an internal auditing feature documents the last person who has logged into the system and made a change.

“If there is ever a complaint of improper conduct, or to the point of invasion of privacy, I’ll be able to go back and see who adjusted the camera from it’s predetermined course,” Butler said.

There are only two people who can grant access to the cameras: Whitton and his colleague Dave Martini. Butler then audits what Whitton and Martini do.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio is pushing for clearer guidelines when it comes to data retention and data sharing.

“We want law enforcement to be able to do their jobs, but also protect individual privacy liberties,” said ACLU of Ohio policy coordinator Melissa Bilancini. “There’s an understanding that law enforcement needs to prevent crimes. What we’re hoping to get in Ohio -- on privacy and technology issues -- is for the entire state to be on the same page.”

The federal governing surveillance use said that cameras can be used for "watching and recording citizens without their knowledge or consent as long as no sound is recorded.”

Other Functions of the Real-Time Crime Center

Thomas said officers who work in the the real-time crime center also provide additional support to their co-workers on the street. They sometimes will comb social media sites and internal databases to ferret out information related to a crime or to develop a potential suspect.

Officers package profiles of information for investigators to advance cases.

“Even when officers are not getting cooperation from witnesses on the street, and get just enough information from tidbits here and there, we can come up with some viable leads for them,” Thomas said.

In homicide cases, detectives may call on the real-time crime center to conduct a profile on the victim in order to find out who their associates were as well as to find phone numbers and addresses, while the detective continues the investigation, Thomas said. The center’s chief mandate is to give field officers and detectives prompt and broad information to help isolate patterns and/or  impede emerging crime.

“We have certain databases that are linked internally, which I can pull up anytime you were given a ticket or road report, but it’s not like TV where I can pull your DNA in two seconds,” Thomas said. “Gathering supplemental information through open-sourced, social media and closed-source databases is 90 percent of what we do.”

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