University police considering upgrade to hi-tech ‘smart cams’

Kevin Behr

The University currently has more than 800 security cameras watching over campus buildings and parking lots.

But simply recording events indiscriminately might not be enough to prevent crime the way some University officials would like.

University Police Chief Greg Hestness and Bob Janoski, director of the Department of Central Security, took a trip to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore at the end of March and were introduced to the Intelligent Video Surveillance system.

The state-of-the-art security cameras – or “smart cams” – are much more advanced than those used by the University.

“These things are more like computers than cameras,” Hestness said.

Janoski said the cameras utilize behavior recognition software that can be programmed to monitor up to 16 behaviors and suspicious activities. Some of those behaviors include lingering, erratic movement, fleeing suspects and convergence: the gathering of a group of individuals who might be getting ready to rob or assault someone, he said.

For example, a camera would identify people climbing the stairs in a parking ramp, exiting at various levels to get to their cars as normal behavior, Hestness said.

But if a person walked up to a certain level and just stood there for five minutes, the camera would recognize this as unusual behavior and alert security monitors, he said.

“It might be some guys lying in wait to commit a crime,” Hestness said. “Or it might just be somebody who had a heart attack.”

In either instance, the smart camera system would alert security monitors so they could decide whether or not to call police.

Three monitors watch 873 feeds of camera footage, so the smart cams would bring their images to the forefront and cue up other images of nearby areas, Janoski said.

“It gives the operators a powerful tool,” he said. “It automates the monitoring, prioritizes the alerts and it increases the effectiveness for the operators.”

Another advantage to the smart cams is its tracking method. Using algorithms and a terrain mapping system, the smart cams quickly hone in on suspicious behaviors. The computers are able to comprehend video images the way a human eye can, Janoski said.

Janoski said the cameras would mostly be used to monitor public spaces such as tunnels, plazas, walkways and both vehicular and bicycle parking areas. The surveillance system would be more preventative than reactive in preventing crime, he said.

“It would serve as a deterrent and minimize police and security response times,” he said.

But all that technology doesn’t come cheap. It cost Johns Hopkins University about $500,000 to initially install just 32 of these cameras, Janoski said. That works out to more than $15,000 per camera.

Jon Taylor, president of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, a University student group, said he wouldn’t be a fan of the cameras.

“I think there’s huge potential for privacy concerns and racial profiling,” the first-year law student said. “For one thing, you can almost hire another police officer with that money.”

Janoski said proposals will be made to committees that annually decide funding for security measures across the University system each year. So far, no specific plans have been drawn up to submit to the committees, Janoski said.

-Justin Horwath contributed to this report.