By the time more than 15,500 ticket holders stream downtown to watch Paul McCartney at the new Golden 1 Center in October, Sacramento police plan to electronically eyeball the crowd from a new “real time crime center.”
Envision a bank of screens feeding in footage from locations across the city or zeroing in on a few blocks when something bad happens. Data from thousands of license plates being scanned on roadways every minute, alarms from bait cars that have lured thieves, suspicious activity in throngs of people at festivals, basketball games and concerts – all fed into a central location so a handful of high-tech officers can use the steady flow of information to dispatch colleagues and maybe follow suspects.
That’s the plan the Police Department has for creating this “one-stop shop” for monitoring many of its existing surveillance technologies, said Sacramento Police Department spokesman Matthew McPhail.
Video has most often been used after a crime has been committed, but the goal now is to use it more quickly – maybe even as events unfold – to track suspects as they move and guide responding officers.
“An officer who was in the real time crime center could feasibly call up the camera closest to where that crime was happening … and make sure we can direct our resources when they are needed,” said McPhail.
Located within an existing building on Richards Boulevard, the facility has estimated startup costs of $429,481, funded by a variety of sources.
It will include feeds from 10 live-stream cameras proposed for installation around the arena. Ten feeds from other cameras that can read license plates and record video. Camera footage from Regional Transit light-rail stations and, eventually, trains. Alerts when bait cars are moved. And footage from two major private business groups – Arden Fair and the Power Inn Alliance.
More than 50 monitoring units could operate by the end of the year, according to department spokeswoman Officer Traci Trapani.
Currently there are about 30 up and running, but the department doesn’t have a dedicated program or staff for monitoring them. Footage can be pulled up by officers, but many of the feeds aren’t regularly viewed.
Without the one-stop center, the department in the past year credits more than 100 felony arrests in part to the camera system, along with the recovery of more than 700 stolen vehicles. In one of the most high-profile incidents involving its cameras, footage from a unit “essentially right over the crime scene” was released to the public last October to identify a suspect after French train hero Spencer Stone was stabbed outside a midtown bar, said McPhail. That helped lead to the arrest of Elk Grove resident James Tran.
Condensing all of the feeds into one location will also help with security in large crowds and with patrolling high-crime areas, said McPhail, allowing more coverage with fewer personnel.
“Rather than have 50 cops on 50 corners, I can have one person monitoring,” he said.
The budget for the center includes $279,491 in Federal Justice Assistance Grant funds, according to a City Council report. Regional Transit will contribute $150,000 as well, and fold its current camera monitoring operation into the new center.
Capt. Norm Leong, a Sacramento city police officer and head of security for Sacramento Regional Transit, said joining the agencies’ monitoring will give RT access to police and city transportation department street cameras, and allow police to access the RT camera system.
Regional Transit has light-rail station cameras and soon will have live feeds from cameras in light-rail trains. Currently, RT has in-train cameras, but they aren’t real-time. Footage is collected on tape, and can be downloaded and viewed.
RT has been under pressure from business leaders and riders to increase the security on light-rail trains, especially with the push for patrons to use public transportation to reach the arena.
To that end, RT is adding 25 more fare checkers on trains this summer and will close down a communications center it has near the 13th Street light-rail station to move that staff to the new police center, likely in July, Leong said.
“This allows both agencies to have a better coordinated response to major incidents,” Leong said.
The joint effort will be a “win-win situation,” said Councilman and RT board Chairman Jay Schenirer. “Obviously, RT has some challenges around security. But they’re challenges for the city. They are not just challenges for RT. Working in close cooperation with the city police I think just makes it better for everybody.”
More than half of the budget for the crime center – $268,258 – will go toward equipment costs. Another $65,440 is allotted for supplies, while more than $52,000 will pay for construction and $43,670 for additional work by contractors, according to a department report.
The Police Department’s camera system costs about $2,400 to $3,000 for each live-stream camera, said McPhail, with some money coming from asset forfeiture funds, money received from the sale of goods seized during investigations. But that cost is significantly lower than retail prices – which could run about $8,000 for each camera – because the Police Department builds them in-house, he said.
Two enterprising Sacramento officers from the agency’s High Tech Unit began building the units themselves using off-the-shelf components to both lower costs and create cameras that were tailored to the department’s needs.
Their efforts grew into the Police Observation Devices program, which has now built all of the current 30 units and earned the department the California Police Chiefs Association Excellence in Technology Innovation Award this year.
Adding a license plate reader to the POD system is about $11,500 for each unit because it is proprietary specialized technology, said McPhail. Those devices are funded in part through a grant from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Sacramento Police Department has also agreed to monitor four cameras for Arden Fair mall and the Power Inn Alliance, a property and business improvement district in the southeast part of the city.
Power Inn Alliance Executive Director Tracey Schaal said that earlier this spring, one of the license plate cameras helped identify a suspect in a drive-by shooting.
“When anything bad like that happens in a community, it shakes the community,” she said. “People feel better when crimes have been solved.”
McPhail said the department will consider monitoring live footage for private businesses on a case-by-case basis.
“In particular these two organizations have been very good partners to us,” he said. “We would consider all offers from the business community … but we would have to assess whether or not it made sense.”
While police surveillance technology across the country has raised privacy concerns for some, Schaal said it has not been an issue in her district, where crimes like drag racing are common.
“In terms of the privacy thing, the only thing I would say on that is that we have not had our property owners or their tenants voice any concerns over it,” she said. “At this point, the community likes having the additional layer of security.”
Not all Sacramentans are so sanguine.
Tanya Faison, founder of the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter, said the surveillance system is “extreme.”
“We can’t afford to get body cameras on cops to make sure they are doing their jobs the right way … but yet on every corner, especially on corners where the communities are brown and black, we have cameras,” she said. “They are just moving at a very rapid and aggressive pace with surveillance.”
McPhail said the department has “gone to great lengths to make sure the cameras are only recording in public spaces … we are not even capturing something in a glancing corner of the camera” and that the cameras do not record audio.
Faison said that regulations need to be clearer before the system grows, such as how the Police Department can collect and use footage.
McPhail said the department seeks to be transparent about its surveillance, including the locations of the cameras.
“We want people to know this is a place where we have a camera up,” said McPhail. “It’s not designed to be sneaky or hidden or covert.”
Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049