LAPD Systems Keep an Eye on Crime

By David Spark  |  Posted 2006-01-02

LAPD Systems Keep an Eye on Crime

A drug deal is happening right now in Los Angeles MacArthur Park, and there are no cops around. But that hasnt been such a problem since the Los Angeles Police Department installed 12 surveillance cameras, said Sgt. Dan Gomez of the LAPDs Tactical Technology Unit, Office of Operations.

From a remote location, Gomez, an officer with 13 years experience, watches the monitors: "All of a sudden, you see a drug dealer going back and forth. [You can see] where hes hiding his stash, where hes hiding his rocks of cocaine."

"In the past, you would never be able to see [all the details of a crime] because you couldnt get close enough. Now I can see it," Gomez said.

When Gomez sees a crime going down, he calls in officers and remotely guides them, step by step: "Hey, this individual just put that in his right pocket. Oh, he just saw you; hes turning. I saw him. He dropped it right by that bench."

Seeing more, and communicating better, is a result of the cameras.

"Before, we might only catch the user. Well now were catching the dealer, and were finding where hes putting his stuff," Gomez said. "In terms of effectiveness of the arrest, its much better than the way we used to do policing."

MacArthur Park sits in the center of the densely populated Rampart district of Los Angeles. The 40-acre park has been notorious for drug deals and the distribution of illegal documents such as fake passports.

Over the years, in an effort to reduce these activities, the LAPD has tried deploying more officers to patrol the park. Crime would temporarily drop, but as soon as those additional officers left to work somewhere else, the crime would gradually return, Gomez explained.

With instructions from Chief William Bratton and Assistant Chief George Gascon, the LAPD began looking for a more permanent, cost-efficient solution.

Instead of simply hiring more officers, they sought unique ways to deploy technology as a "force multiplier." In effect, Gomez said, they asked themselves, "How can technology better inform the force we already have?"

Gascon approached Hamilton Pacific—a security integrator in Pasadena, Calif., that specializes in the installation of camera equipment—for help in developing a pilot surveillance system.

Hamilton Pacific, in turn, called in GE Industrial, Security, a larger full-service security company, to fulfill the far-reaching security needs of the LAPD, said Andrew Shephard, systems sales manager for GE Security, a subsidiary of General Electric Co. based in Bradenton, Fla.

In January 2004, as a test case to see the benefits of video surveillance, the LAPDs Rampart Division began installing especially rugged, vandal-resistant CyberDome Day-Nite 25X pan-tilt zoom surveillance cameras in MacArthur Park. The test case was made possible by donations from GE Security, Hamilton Pacific and private investors, Shephard said.

"The goal [of installing the cameras] wasnt just to make arrests but ... to modify behavior," Gomez said.

According to Gomez, the impact on crime in MacArthur Park has been astounding. Compared with crime data for 2002 in that area, 2004 saw a 45 percent decrease in crime.

Click here to read about how database technology is helping the NYPD fight crime.

Now the LAPD is testing a patrol car outfitted with $25,000 worth of technology—including in-car video recording, facial-recognition software and roof-mounted license-plate-recognition cameras.

Patrolling the streets and highways of L.A., this smart car uses infrared technology to scan the license plates of cars it passes on both the left and right. A computer in the trunk immediately runs the collected information against a database that is updated daily with plate numbers associated with stolen vehicles, felony wanted suspects and Amber Alerts.

If a passed car is a match, the officers in the car immediately see the information on their in-car notebook computer, Gomez said. Working continuously for 10 hours, the cameras can automatically scan between 5,000 and 8,000 cars per day, depending on the level of traffic, he said.

Next Page: Facial recognition software spots gang members.

Facial Recognition Software Spots

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Officer Damien Levesque, who previously worked in the Rampart Divisions gang unit, joined Gomez at the Office of Operations to begin testing a portable facial-recognition device called the Mobile Identifier.

Levesque refers to the Mobile Identifier—which is built by ViewSonic Corp. of Walnut, Calif., with software developed by Neven Vision of Santa Monica, Calif.—as a "traveling mug book."

GE Security recommended that the LAPD try Neven Vision in October 2004. At that time, Neven Vision was the only provider of embedded facial-recognition software.

The software could run completely on a handheld device instead of having to send an image request to a server for processing, said Hartmut Neven, chief technology officer of Neven Vision.

Levesque is the gang units expert on the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Knowing all the gangs members, he took the Mobile Identifier loaded with 1,000 mug shots into the field to see if it could identify gang members as well as he could.

When a suspect is scanned with the Mobile Identifier, nine possible images appear in order of best match to worst match. Consistently, Levesque said, the device correctly identified the person in either the first or second position.

Three hundred officers operate out of the Rampart district, and 12 officers work in the gang unit. Only two of those 12 are experts on a specific gang, Gomez said. Given the success of the test, "I can deploy anybody and make them a gang expert simply by handing them the pod," he said. "Ive essentially given Damiens knowledge to officers who would otherwise not be able to make this arrest."

The success of the video surveillance and identification pilot projects has encouraged the LAPD to look ahead to a complete build-out, Shephard said.

The department plans to build a 911 center that ties in all the surveillance cameras already installed around the city—including more than 250 cameras used by the Department of Transportation for traffic control, Shephard said.

Video from the 911 center will be pushed out to stations in specific districts. Motorola Inc. this year plans to invest $1 million to install a mesh network in the Jordan Downs area of L.A. to wirelessly push surveillance video to notebook computers in patrol cars, Shephard said.

Levesque said he is pushing for a complete mobile identification package that can help book suspects in the field with facial recognition, fingerprint scanning and a language translator.

"On a basic level, it costs about $125,000 to equip, train and get an officer out into the field," Gomez said. Video surveillance dramatically changes the learning curve, Gomez said. "I can take experienced officers and put them on this camera as a force multiplier, and, boy, its just like I hired 40 experienced officers to do one job."

David Spark is a free-lance writer based in San Francisco. He can be reached at

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