The University pays people to watch live television every day — for the public good.
In a third-floor nook of the Parking and Transportation Services Building, security supervisor Steve Frisk and a team of nine assistants scan a wall of television monitors, looking for anything unusual.
“What are you seeing here that you haven’t seen ten thousand times before?” Frisk often asks his assistants.
Though staring at images of empty stairwells and elevator lobbies may appear lackluster, surveillance officials who stay tuned guard and protect people in University parking ramps.
Flashing images come from 359 video cameras placed strategically to capture the comings and goings of people parked on the Minneapolis campus. The images travel on copper wire, fiber optic lines and microwaves to a central security room.
Five of the room’s 17 screens record ramp activity at a rate of 7.1 scenes per second. Called “multi-plexing,” 16 camera locations feed information into a single video tape.
After a tape is recorded for 24-hours, it’s stacked among 400 others and archived for a month. The tape is recycled 12 times before it’s destroyed.
Only five of the University’s 18 parking facilities under surveillance are multi-plexed, as each system cost roughly $3,500 in 1997, Frisk said.
Security assistants scope 13 other screens with a more reasonable image per second pace. They can zoom in with a specific camera or pan an outdoor lot from a rooftop, then record suspicious activity on real-time video recorders.
The technology has helped bust burglars and secure safety in University parking ramps for more than a decade, and the equipment tally rises with each new parking facility, Frisk said. The stock of University video cameras went from 10 in 1985 to more than 200 in 1996.
The past three years have seen a boom in transportation security equipment, yet plans for an added system — audio panic buttons — are still in the works. The buttons would connect patrons to an attendant in the central security room.
The volume of equipment in the $1.5 million electronic system — including cameras, screens and connections — is justified if the University is going to be consistent from facility to facility, Frisk said.
A major impetus to upgrade ramp security came in 1988, when 19-year-old Carrie Coonrod and 34-year-old Mary Foley were murdered in Minneapolis parking ramps. The next year, the Minnesota Supreme Court mandated ramp owners to improve security measures.
“The University was already in the security camera business then, but that act added a little extra prod,” Frisk said.
The resulting security influx was meant to serve people, but it’s had other bonuses as well, such as the ability to better protect property and operate more efficiently, he said.
Last week, University Police were puzzled why the basement security entrance to its Washington Avenue headquarters was broken. Given a time frame by police, a security assistant scanned videos and discovered the culprit: A truck backed into the metal security unit, and the driver left.
The textbook example of surveillance patience and payoff happened at 10:30 p.m. on April 17, 1997. An intern security assistant telephoned University Police when she noticed a car parking numerous times in the Wildcat Lot. Eight minutes later, police arrested two men as they attempted to break into two vehicles.
Asked why the men tried to burglarize a parking lot under video surveillance, Frisk said they responded: “We didn’t know there were video cameras here.”
While the effectiveness of cameras as a deterrent varies, the electronic eyes do instill a psychological reaction in people, said University Police Sgt. Joe May.
“It gives personal recognition,” May said. “The anonymity factor is obliterated.”
He likened a camera’s effect on “bad-guys” to Wal-Mart employees who welcome customers — not as a greeting, but to discourage shoplifting.
But a perpetual process of viewing screens and discarding tapes is only rarely interrupted by actual crime.
Typically, the screens in parking headquarters show image upon image of empty stairwells, elevator lobbies and cars exiting ramps.
Such monotony can quickly take a toll on a person. Frisk noted an example of surveillance exhaustion from which the industry has learned: An observer at a federal facility was so zoned out from hours of staring at empty screens that he didn’t sound the company alarm even as three men did nude jumping jacks in front of the video security system.
“There’s a burn-out factor,” Frisk said. “People can watch, but it doesn’t mean they’ll see.”
While the federal employees were only testing their defense system in that instance, the University takes precautions of its own.
Employees work shifts of two hours on, two hours off, during the 3 p.m. to 7 a.m. operation. Security assistants scan screens for unusual activity, then trade sedentary spots with another staff member while they physically observe campus sites they previously saw on camera.
For the attentive viewer, however, the job has its juicier moments. Interrupting the blipping blank screens last week, Frisk said a couple entered a parking ramp elevator and began kissing. They stopped as the woman motioned to the camera. The man then looked into it and waved his hand away as if the camera was fake.
But the University parking ramps, unlike many department stores, do not employ “dummy” cameras, Frisk said.
“Every time I go into a department store, I immediately start looking for hidden cameras,” Frisk said. “Of course, I’m in the business.”
Not only a crime-stopper, video surveillance offers traffic congestion updates from an outdoor camera spying Washington Avenue, Frisk said. He and attendants also see campus visitors looking dismally astray and offer assistance to these “lost souls.”
Another view from the central security room is parking booths, where attendants similarly have surveillance screens to observe images of the facility in which they’re working.
Cameras in ramp booths often show customers and attendants meeting at the service window. Most attendants agree, cameras provide a security blanket amid the potential danger of having their till robbed.
Ali Waliany said he hasn’t been harassed in 12 years of work at various University parking ramps. But his friend was one of two attendants robbed last year.
“It’s a good deal to have cameras. Job-wise, security-wise, it makes people feel safer,” he said.
Jessica Cressey, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts, said she feels safer handling a lot of money with security cameras on her.
“I had a job where I used to worry about (being observed), but here … I’m glad to have it,” she said.
Others, however, feel that Big Brother is watching.
“We have people who think the cameras were put in to spy on them, to catch them goofing off, to catch them stealing,” Frisk said. “No, that’s not it. The primary reason is to protect people.”
Joe Murphy, a senior in the Carlson School of Management and three-year-veteran of parking services, said he doesn’t feel safer with video cameras focused on him, but uses them to assess how much space is left on a ramp.
He said he thinks attendant booths are watched often because of past robbed tills.
Thefts occurred at Lot C33 in October 1997 and from a West Bank ramp parking booth in December, 1997, according to police reports.
Officials hope to finish a report this fall with data on the frequency and location of parking-related incidents between 1994 and 1998.