Miami-Dade County

Miami police plan to use hundreds of high-tech cameras to fight crime

It’s not quite Big Brother, but in the next few months Miami police expect to have technology in place to zoom in, identify and follow people enjoying events on Biscayne Boulevard, eating dinner outside in Brickell or just doing their thing in Overtown, Little Haiti and Model City.

The city police department is moving forward with a complicated plan to allow them to watch up to 200 closed-circuit television screens at once in a new high-tech command center. There will be 25 high-definition, 55-inch television sets fed by up to 400 cameras placed around town.

The five servers that are the heartbeat of the system have capacity to take feeds from up to 2,500 cameras at a time.

The plan to catch bad guys, though, has come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which questions whether the cameras will invade people’s privacy in apartments and cars, and if the proper protocols are in place to prevent abuse of the system.

The cameras would be attached to a variety of sources that include red light cameras, building rooftops, street poles and a new but controversial GPS bullet tracking system that city commissioners agreed to purchase in April — even though South Florida’s two largest law enforcement agencies had discarded it because of flaws.

Overall cost for the technology, including the GPS ShotSpotter system, is less than $700,000, with about half the money coming from federal funds meant to fight terrorism. That’s not terribly expensive in the post 9/11 era, when such mounted cameras were credited with identifying the Boston Marathon bombers, notes Miami police Chief Manuel Orosa. Much like in New York and Tampa, and to a lesser degree London, the technology would give police eyes in the sky with the ability to constantly track several neighborhoods around town at the same time.

“It will help us solve crimes; it will help us deter crimes,” Orosa said. “We’re mostly using resources that are already out there. It’s a good investigative tool and a deterrent.”

Complicated negotiations needed to get the systems in place are still ahead and would increase the cost: Orosa is counting on city agencies like the Downtown Development Authority, the Bayfront Park Management Trust and even the Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency to foot the bill in their neighborhoods for dozens of the zoom-in cameras, which cost as much as $4,800 each.

When complete, the command center televisions would be linked to 144 red-light cameras at street intersections, about ten would be on rooftops next to ShotSpotter sensors, while dozens more would come from cameras that were set up eight years ago along the Biscayne Boulevard corridor but remain inactive. The rest would be purchased from the city agencies. Under the plan, the police department would have to purchase the cameras that will go next to the gun tracking devices. That money has yet to be identified.

In addition to the Biscayne and Brickell corridors, the city wants ShotSpotters along rooftops in Overtown, Little Haiti and Model City, but still must complete agreements with several private property owners in those communities where the system would be placed. Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff heads up the DDA, which oversees economic development in Miami’s downtown neighborhoods around Flagler Street, and he is on board.

“Anything we can do to help catch criminals is something I think we should do,” Sarnoff said.

The plan doesn’t come without its detractors.

The ACLU of Florida sees it as unnecessary snooping and “indiscriminate continued surveillance” that would be more appropriate at large sites where people gather like the Port of Miami or Miami International Airport. Also, South Florida’s two largest law enforcement agencies — Miami-Dade County Police and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office — have terminated contracts with ShotSpotter system owner SST because the technology mistook too many random noises for gunfire and didn’t help much in real-time crime-fighting.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said similar plans in Tampa and Oakland have failed. He said Tampa dismantled its facial recognition system after ACLU complaints and too many false positives.

“The claim that out in public you have a reduced expectation of privacy is an abused standard by police,” Simon said. “A whole range of protocols need to be put in place. It’s not being used because of a hope for enhancement of safety, but primarily because Homeland Security is throwing money around.” He called giving police feeds from red-light cameras nothing more than “mission creep.”

The ShotSpotter system on its own will cost the city $275,000 the first year and about $40,000 in subsequent years.

The technology first came to light in Miami in early 2013. Commissioner Francis Suarez, who was running for mayor at the time, pushed it as an effective tool to fight crime in several of the city’s mostly black neighborhoods. Then public discussion on the item was tabled for about a year.

ShotSpotter is a network of sensors and GPS signals on flat boards about the size of a car’s air filter that are placed on strategic rooftops. The device is activated when it hears an impulse of noises. If the noise hits three sensors, the technology can pinpoint where the noise is coming from within 10 meters.

It’s then relayed to police. SST said it hopes to have agreements with property owners where the sensors would be placed within two months. The machines would cover a four-square-mile area in Miami, meaning the city would be outfitted with 60 to 80 sensors.

When the idea of ShotSpotter was first introduced to Miami in early 2013, Orosa noted the system’s flaws, telling commissioners that Miami-Dade police didn’t like the system and that the Broward Sheriff’s Office gave up on it. Orosa told the elected leaders that ShotSpotter wasn’t “going to stop people from shooting each other.”

County cops finally abandoned ShotSpotter last November. In 2013, according to Miami-Dade Police Maj. Stephanie Daniels, the system identified more than 1,000 incidents even though there were fewer than 50 confirmed shootings.

Daniels said ShotSpotter helped Northside District police identify where shootings happened but failed to help cops apprehend shooters.

“While the system has been effective in some ways, one must weigh the cost of the system against its effectiveness in serving its purpose of reducing gunfire,” she said.

Still, ShotSpotter surfaced again in Miami in April, with commissioners unanimously voting to implement it, and Orosa finally on board after informing commissioners that gunfire tracking system will be more effective after police are able to mount cameras next to the sensors.

The chief’s plan is to place between eight and 10 cameras linked to his command center, adjacent to sensors. When a sensor detects gunfire it is relayed back to police in less than 30 seconds. At that point an officer in the command center can maneuver a nearby camera to within 10 meters of where the weapon was fired.

“Some of these cameras will be attached next to the ShotSpotter so that the shots go out, we put the camera on and we see exactly what’s going on,” Orosa said.

It’s the zoom-in capability that worries the ACLU’s Simon. He sees the system being abused by cops spending time checking out pretty women — or worse.

“What’s to prevent them from zooming in on an apartment or a car. There are limits,” Simon said. “When I’m sitting on a park bench, can it zoom in to see what I’m reading?”