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Back to Archives | Back to August 2007 Contents 

School Watch: Digital Surveillance Technology for School Security

By Captain Tomas Sanchez, Support Services Division, Hollywood Police Department, Hollywood, Florida


nce again, recent horrific school shootings have focused attention on school security. On September 27, 2006, in Bailey, Colorado, one girl was killed after a gunman claiming to have a bomb took six girls hostage. On October 2, 2006, in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, five female students were killed and five others wounded. Most recently, on Monday, April 16, 2007, a shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, left 33 people dead and many wounded; the gunman, a 23-year-old Virginia Tech student, killed himself. In Hollywood, Florida, law enforcement is implementing cutting-edge technology to mitigate such events.


Project Background

In November 2004, the Hollywood Police Department received General Obligation Bond funding to enhance technology. This funding has enabled the department to equip 280 officers with incar laptop computers. Electronic forms such as crash reports, traffic citations, field interview cards, and various mapping programs have been made available. License plates can be checked using microphones that enable officers to make voice-activated queries.

During the same time, the department was awarded Secure Our Schools grant funds from the Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), and the department appropriated $48,636 in matching funds to support the program. The grant provided for the purchase and installation of security technology equipment to enhance surveillance and security measures at South Broward High School.

The City of Hollywood has three high schools serving area students. Because of its large student population and associated issues, South Broward High School was selected to be the first of the three to implement wireless remote surveillance technology. The school sits on a 20-acre campus with multiple buildings. It is equipped with 60 security cameras controlled from a single access point inside the “camera room.”


Camera Room, Server, VPUs
Project Details and Implementation

On April 26, 2005, an interlocal agreement was signed between the City of Hollywood and the School Board of Broward County, Florida, to implement the surveillance technology. A wireless site survey was conducted at the school to determine the location and configuration of the wireless implementation. An eight-port Ethernet video server was purchased along with other support hardware. The server provides 1.5 terabytes of storage and accommodates 30 days of digital video recordings. The cost of the project totaled $85,620, a large portion of which consisted of the video management software, user licenses, Web client software, and a PC Pocket Connection license.

The system replaces a room full of fixed video screens, VHSstyle recorders, and old tapes needing regular replacement (figure 1). The 60 preexisting analog videocameras were integrated into the new system (figure 2), connected to video processing units (VPUs) that convert the analog signal to digital (figure 3). VPUs then send the signal to the server for archiving. The server sends data to a main switch; from there, data are sent to the school network and the wireless access point.

From the school network, the video can be accessed by desktop computers, where the cameras can be controlled. School administrators welcomed the ability to view footage captured by the surveillance cameras from their office computers, as they could view events in various areas of the school instantly. This technology can also enable other school staff to assist in safety—the principal was given the responsibility of deciding who will have access to the system.

A wireless survey determined that three wireless access points would provide sufficient coverage of the school and its perimeter (figure 4). Three different antennas were erected to create a “hotspot” around the outer perimeter of the school (figure 5). The access points transmit encrypted data via Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP 802.11b) at a speed of 54-110 megabits per second. This speed provides real-time viewing for critical incidents and suspect tracking.

Wireless Access Point, Front Antenna, SRO Czerenda showing a witness a video surveillance on his PDA
Connection to the Internet can be established easily with this equipment. By establishing a virtual private network (VPN) and assigning an Internet Protocol (IP) address with password protection, anyone with access and an Internet connection can view the cameras. Internet reception is received in the in-car computer at a speed of 768 kilobits per second. However, this is considerably slower than through the 802.11b.

Footage can be monitored via wireless devices such as a personal digital assistant (PDA), allowing the school resource officer (SRO) and the school security specialist to monitor school surveillance cameras while conducting other functions (figure 6). The size and portability of the PDA is ideal for the SRO and school staff to perform their daily functions. Officers can also view footage from any of the school surveillance cameras using their in-car computers, as long as they are within the outer perimeter of the school. Multiple cameras can be monitored at the same time from laptop computers (figure 7). Previously recorded events can also be retrieved. In addition, each officer’s laptop contains safety plans with aerial and ground pictures, floor plans, maps, and information on every school.1

Digital data storage allows both on-site and remote retrieval of data. The ease in recording and copying digital footage ensures readily available evidence for prosecution purposes. Video segments can be bookmarked, copied, or saved to the hard drive, or they can be downloaded for evidence purposes (figure 8). The new system provides much better resolution than the previous system, increasing the evidentiary value of video footage in court.

Cameras can be easily activated to record remotely or through desktop computers. The cameras are always on, but when the system detects motion it begins recording at a higher frame and bit rate. This feature is used to narrow down searches according to camera, motion, date, and time. A scroll menu at the bottom portion of the screen displays all motion-activated cameras, allowing users to identify movement in the school. All the laptops default to this setting. When school is not in session, units responding to the school can easily select from the cameras that have been activated by motion. This feature is especially useful during alarm calls, burglaries, or critical incidents.

Since video footage of events can be readily captured and retrieved, the system has already proven itself several times. In several different cases of vandalism, suspects have confessed after being shown the video capturing them committing the crime. Recently the South Broward High SRO, Josh Czerenda, was working a home football game when he checked his laptop and noticed three male suspects jump the fence into the school to commit a burglary. He radioed for security and was able to track the suspects as they fled, only to be met by waiting patrol officers.

Should a critical incident occur, the SRO could view activity using school cameras without having to go to the school’s camera room, thus providing information to responding units in real time (figure 9). This technology would assist supervisors in making better tactical decisions. Supervisors would know immediately the number of suspects involved, their descriptions, and their location on the campus. This technology not only enhances the effectiveness of the SRO but also improves the tactical effectiveness of responding patrol officers. Tactical teams can add a PDA to their equipment to allow them camera views of an unsecured area before entering it.

Laptop screenshot, Officer accessing school cameras

Funding

Significant funding for such projects is available through the following sources:

  • The COPS program offers Secure Our Schools grant information at its Web site: www.cops.usdoj.gov/.

  • The National Institute of Justice, Science and Technology Branch, offers funding via its National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center Safe School Technology Grants: www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/.2

  • The Emergency Response and Crisis Management discretionary grant program provides funds for local education agencies to improve and strengthen their emergency response plans. On August 30, 2006, the U.S. secretary of education announced the awarding of over $23 million in grants to 74 school districts in 26 states to help them enhance their emergency plans.3

Conclusion

Remote viewing of surveillance camera footage is the wave of the future. This technology allows the police to view activity from remote locations and a multitude of end-user sites. It can be customized to interface with law enforcement mobile computer terminals and central dispatch databases. With regard to tactical operations, this type of technology is priceless. Remote viewing of surveillance camera footage can also be used to monitor students on buses.

In closing, schools need to prepare for crises such as school shootings and suicides as well as large-scale disasters such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It is recommended that law enforcement agencies review their school security plans to ensure that they are comprehensive and address a wide range of crisis situations. As emergency planners, agencies must anticipate worst-case scenarios, develop strategies for prevention, and have plans to save lives when they do occur.■


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Notes:
1See Tom Sanchez, “High-Tech Crisis Plans: Tools for School Safety,” The Police Chief 70, no. 4 (April 2003): 18–26.
2The National Institute of Justice also provides a Web site that can assist with creating critical-incident response plans: “School Critical Incident Planning: An Internet Resource Directory,” Justice Technology Information Network, http://www.nlectc.org/assistance/schoolsafety.html (accessed June 6, 2007).
3See “$23 Million in Emergency Response Grants Awarded to 26 States: Seventy-four School Districts to Use Funds to Help Improve Crisis Management,” U.S. Department of Education press release, April 30, 2006, http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2006/08/08302006.html (accessed June 8, 2007) for details.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 8, August 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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