Deep inside a new high-tech command center at Miami police headquarters, an officer on a computer controlling a series of high-definition TV screens takes aim at a young man sitting on the steps in front of the Torch of Freedom at Bayfront Park.
As the camera zooms in for a closer look, the cop clearly sees the man sitting on a skateboard, the shoelaces on his black sneakers undone, his green floppy hat and the white iPhone in his pocket attached to his ear by a wire.
“Pretty much, if he turns that around I can see who he’s calling,” said Marty Garcia, the point person behind the city’s $700,000 plan to make virtual policing a real-time endeavor in Miami.
On Wednesday, just days before retiring as Miami’s police chief, Manuel Orosa unveiled the city’s ambitious plan to enhance homeland security by widening the lens of policing in Miami through the use of computers and high-powered cameras.
It couldn’t come at a more appropriate time: Technology was a key component in identifying the three men accused of terrorizing Paris and killing 17 people last week. And video surveillance cameras helped identify the remaining Tsarnaev brother, whose trial for the bombings of the 2013 Boston Marathon is about to begin.
Today, Miami’s control center — or its Virtual Policing Detail — is a dark room with a U-shaped table filled with eight computers linked to 28 large-screen, 55-inch high-definition TVs hung on four walls. They are all connected to 25 cameras, mostly along the Biscayne Boulevard corridor. The cameras look like giant eggs, white at one end, silver on the other.
The plan is to expand the system into Brickell, Little Haiti, Overtown and Model City, as well as some of the most crime-ridden public housing complexes. Think of hit television shows like 24, Homeland and NCIS, but on a smaller scale.
“The future of policing is virtual policing,” Orosa said.
Though the system has the capacity for 2,500 cameras, Orosa hopes to eventually get 250 up and running in high-crime areas, at tourist destinations and near government buildings that could be targeted by terrorists. Homeland Security funds will cover half the cost. Three city agencies — the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Downtown Development Authority and the Bayfront Park Management Trust — are expected to pay for the rest.
The system now in place is fully capable of tracking the action at the controversial Ultra Music Festival held each year at Bayfront Park, where arrests are common and where security guard Erica Mack was almost trampled to death last year.
The plan is to hook cameras up to a ShotSpotter system the city purchased that uses GPS technology to triangulate gunfire, but that has yet to be installed. The city will eventually link the system to the 144 red-light cameras around town.
The system also can read 10,000 license plates an hour and is hooked up to a national database. The cameras have their eyes set not only on PortMiami, but on ports around the country as far away as San Diego.
In addition to general monitoring, police can focus in on specific details. If an officer types the words “red car” into a computer, for instance, all the red cars in a 10-hour span will pop up. Eventually the video will stream into patrol cars in real time. Similar systems on a larger scale are already in use in London, Boston, New York and Orlando.
Howard Simon, the executive director of the ACLU of Florida, has called the city’s plan “mission creep,” and worries that the new law enforcement tactics could invade people’s privacy. He said his main concern is the possible abuse of the system with its zoom-in capability. The system does not include facial recognition.
Orosa, the police chief, brushes off Simon’s concerns, saying privacy has been eroding as technology has advanced.
“Everyone has a telephone now with a camera, anyway,” he said.
Inside the control room on Wednesday, Officer Alex Rivera pointed to a picture of Parking Lot 19 on Biscayne Boulevard across the street from the AmericanAirlines Arena. As the scene played out on the screen, he explained how on the afternoon of Christmas Day a group of tourists park their minivan, then leave. Moments later, a small car pulls up to the empty spot next to it. A man in the passenger seat reaches out and busts the door lock, then walks away with hundreds of dollars of camera and computer equipment.
The thieves weren’t caught that day because police were notified of the incident after it happened. But now police have a clear picture of the vehicle they were driving and what one of the men looks like.
Orosa said the technology will help in how officers are deployed in a time of stretched staffing.
“This gives us more eyes on the community and more eyes on people who might be committing a crime,” the chief said. “We won’t need policemen in those areas as much.”