Last summer, City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a report that said that about half of the city’s 216 security cameras didn’t work.
The Nutter administration fired back, but regardless of the validity of the report, the discussion lacked an important point of context: those 216 cameras make up just over 10 percent of the nearly 1,800 video feeds that the Police Department has access to.
The Police Department’s 24-hour Real Time Crime Center has access to 1,798 surveillance camera feeds, nearly 90 percent of which are SEPTA cameras at subway stations, bus stops and regional rail lines, said Mike Vidro, the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology staffer who oversees the Police Department’s surveillance camera efforts. (This number does not include the privately-owned video cameras that the city has access to through its SafeCam program. The Police Department doesn’t have a direct feed to the privately-owned cameras — they must download footage from the owners instead.) The Police Department has had this level of access to SEPTA’s cameras for nine months, Vidro said.
The cameras that have been most effective for crime prevention are the ones in the subway system, Vidro said. Many of the video snapshots of crime suspects that you see on the news come from these cameras, he said.
It’s important to note that the Real Time Crime Center is the only unit that has direct real-time access to these video feeds. It’s part of the Real Time Crime Center staffers’ jobs to access relevant feeds for detectives. Vidro hopes to eventually give each police district direct access to relevant video feeds (giving the effect of a mini Real Time Crime Center in every district), but there are no hard and fast plans to do this yet, he said.
By September, the Police Department will have access to about 100 more cameras, including those from Amtrak and the National Park Service, Vidro said. After that, the city will work on adding 600 cameras from the Philadelphia Housing Authority and 20 from the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. The city is also in talks with Penn, Drexel and Temple to gain access to their camera system (read more about how Penn and Temple’s public safety offices work with the Police Department here).
It’s much more cost-efficient for the city to partner with other agencies’ and organizations’ to gain access to their cameras, Vidro said, rather than installing and maintaining its own camera system, which can be very expensive.
“It it was up to me,” Vidro said, “the city wouldn’t own any cameras.”
Vidro’s team has built a platform that allows for this kind of video feed sharing, he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, Baltimore has its $1.3 million a year CitiWatch effort that installed and maintains more than 600 surveillance cameras around the city. It’s garnered attention from Philly’s City Council, who visited Baltimore to check the system out in January. City Council also recently held a hearing about the city’s surveillance cameras.