Big Brother’s eyes

Walk in one of three parks in Williamsport and one’s image may be captured from a surveillance system police recently installed for law enforcement purposes.

Ten not-yet-fully-functioning surveillance cameras are scanning, using advanced tilt, pan and zoom technology, in three parks. It’s an experiment designed to give police and law enforcement a tool to capture images and footage that can be stored and retained as evidence for later use in criminal proceedings.

Four of the cameras are positioned at Memorial Park on West Fourth Street, three of them are recording images at Roy A. Flanigan Park near Little

League Boulevard and three more are in Newberry Park near Linn and Baker streets, according to Bureau of Police Chief Gregory A. Foresman, who Tuesday briefed the city Public Safety committee on the surveillance system test-run.

“It’s no secret where the cameras are,” Foresman said, in response to a Sun-Gazette question as to whether they were positioned out of public view. “No, they are in plain view,” he said.

One of the cameras at Memorial Park must be repositioned away from a tree that is blocking its view, according to Foresman.

Memorial Park recently became a center of controversy when Mayor Gabriel J. Campana had the basketball court rims removed for a week after drug paraphernalia, litter and trash-talking by players was observed near the perimeter. Campana said he is fearful that allowing trash to accumulate at the park will lead to harsher crimes occurring. “I don’t want it to become a Flanigan Park,” Campana said of the park operated by Lycoming County Housing and the site of two deadly shootings.

Campana’s promised to take the rims down again should the litter pick back up or criminal activities take place at the park.

In response to the test-run, Council President Bill Hall said, given the issues at Memorial Park, cameras might be a way to see if the city can resolve some of those problems. “I don’t know why it took five years but I guess that’s government,” Hall said.

In 2009, the police department was awarded $450,000 under a COPS Technology grant to establish a video surveillance system throughout the city. The following year, the grant for the award funding was accepted by resolution by council that requires the cameras be viewing parks not city streets.

For Councilman Don Noviello, a member of the committee, adding cameras to scan park activities is a step in the right direction. Anything that gives a tool and advantage to police will help the public, not hurt them, he said. “For me it’s a continuation of my responsibility on the committee,” he said, acknowledging the cameras won’t prevent crimes but can be used in police investigation.

“I think they will be a major tool for the police force,” he said. For Noviello, getting results through surveillance is reason enough to support the experiment.

The cameras appear to be able to withstand the elements and are protected by a case. Each one records images and sends the data to a central storage area in the police department. The data is kept for seven days, unless the footage is necessary for evidentiary value, according to Foresman. When that is the case, the footage may be downloaded into a hard drive system and stored for later use in court cases or for specific purposes related to the incident, he added.

“It’s nice because it allows us to review incidents,” Foresman said. “That becomes critical when police may need evidence, such as vehicles, individuals or are following up on investigations,” he added.

“One out of 10 cameras with a problem is pretty good,” said Councilman N. Clifford “Skip” Smith, committee chairman at the meeting, but he cautioned the city is not going to pay Communications System Inc., the Allentown company that was awarded the contract to provide the cameras, until the committee is satisfied the system works as promised. “That’s why we asked for a performance bond,” Smith said.

Campana said he wants to see the cameras expanded to include surveillance of streets and neighborhoods police are responding to the most. Last year, council approved the award of the project to CSI and the city is seeking to expand the system to more parks. The administration continues to look for federal funding, with expansion estimated to require at least $300,000 more funding.

The grant was secured by efforts of former U.S. Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Dimock, Foresman said. “We had the money before we had the system,” he said.