Police Cast an Electronic Eye

The St. Paul police high-tech command center where officers will monitor live feeds from security cameras during the Republican National Convention was a storage room not long ago.

Once dubbed the "Y2K room," it held emergency stores of gas masks and food.

Now, the room at police headquarters has been transformed. There are large-screen televisions and computer monitors showing crystal-clear images of downtown St. Paul's streets and sidewalks beamed from 45 new security cameras. The last of the camera feeds were streamed into the command room Tuesday, said Sgt. Jack Serier, a project manager for the camera system.

At least two officers will be stationed in the command center, monitoring the cameras round-the-clock for several days before the Sept. 1-4 convention and until it ends, Serier said.

The cameras, infrastructure and command center used up $2.1 million of the $50 million grant that police received from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The cameras allow officers to see perspectives that can't be had from the ground, Serier said. They also multiply the department's staff, letting officers virtually "be in many more locations than we otherwise would be able to," Serier said.

The cameras are concentrated around the Xcel Energy Center, and some intersections have more than one to cover multiple angles. The cameras will remain downtown after the convention, though some will be moved.

After the convention, the command center won't be staffed round-the-clock, except for special events, Serier said.

Some of the cameras are fixed in place and others are "PTZ," an abbreviation for "point, tip, zoom." Officers in the command room can control the PTZ cameras with a toggle that looks like a joystick for a video game. The cameras can zoom in on a license plate from up to two blocks away, Serier said.

Before the convention, screens will be installed in the command room that will allow officers to also monitor live feeds from cameras that belong to the Minnesota State Patrol on the Capitol grounds and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Officers in the department's new mobile command vehicle will probably be able to view the camera feeds during the convention, Serier said. Someday, but not in time for the RNC, images could be sent to officers' laptop computers in squad cars.

The digital images are recorded onto the department's hard drives but will be deleted after 10 days, a standard timeframe in the field, Serier said. If a camera captures a crime or a serious accident, that portion would be saved, he said.

From a logistical standpoint, video data takes up a lot of room and can be expensive to store. But the 10-day timeframe should also reassure people that have expressed concern about how police are planning to use the images, Serier said.

Protesters and the American Civil Liberties Union have said they fear police will use the cameras to target innocent people.

"I can tell you right now, with absolute certainty, that there has been no planning and no contingency for taking data and sending it off to some black box in Washington, D.C., to make dossiers (on) people," Serier said. "It's just not part of the plan."

In the autumn, people will be able to view live feeds from the department's cameras by way of computer IP addresses the police make public, but it won't be ready in time for the convention, Serier said.

Another plan down the line: integrating license plate-recognition software into the camera system, Serier said.

The software cross-references, in real time, license plate numbers captured by surveillance cameras with law enforcement databases.

Mara H. Gottfried is a political writer for The St. Paul Pioneer Press. Politico and the Pioneer Press are sharing content for the 2008 election cycle and during the Republican National Convention.

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