Blind eyes in the sky

Only four of the Durham Police Department’s 13 surveillance cameras work consistently. Seven operate only at night; one operates sporadically and another doesn’t work at all. Here are the locations of the cameras:

Google map

• Cardens Lane and Clay Street (signal goes out)

• Cardens Lane and Peabody Street

• 2000 block of Angier Avenue, two cameras

• 400 block of South Driver Street (doesn’t work)

• Angier and South Guthrie Avenue

• Angier and South Briggs Avenue

• 400 block of South Briggs Avenue

• 2400 block of Owen Street

• 2100 block of Driver Street, two cameras

• South Driver and Ashe streets

• Peabody and South Driver streets

From a city-owned utility pole at Angier Avenue and Clay Street, the surveillance camera sees allbut all is not very much. For a street with a reputation as a haven for prostitution, Angier is, at least on this December night, a ghost town, the camera eyeing only faded signs, boarded-up storefronts and, down the street, Angier Avenue Baptist Church.

Encased in its rectangular, bullet-resistant cocoon, the camera is one of 13 surveillance units placed strategically across a two-mile, crime-ridden swath of northeast-central Durham. The city purchased the cameras as part of an initiative to test the feasibility of a public video surveillance system. But nearly two years after Durham City Council originally approved the project, what was envisioned as a web of 13 wireless cameras able to capture and transmit real-time video footage has been hampered by technical glitches. Seven cameras can work only at night. Just four operate with any consistency; one camera delivers a signal intermittently and another does not work at all.

Documents obtained by the Independent reveal that critical oversights and possibly avoidable technical glitches resulted in the delay, inefficiencies and eventual downsizing of the project, which has cost the city an estimated $123,000. Much of the money has been paid to the system’s developer, which, despite its failure to fulfill its contract with the city, has been absolved of any further obligation and has been paid in full.

Reached by phone, Teleport Systems President and CEO Darnell Washington, whose company was contracted to design and implement the system, said that the city’s small budget for the pilot project hampered its functionality.

“Teleport offered the City of Durham a discount, a substantial discount, on our resources and our expertise for something that was unproven,” says Washington, adding he believes both parties acted in good faith. “The traditional cost of a system of that nature would have far exceeded what the city’s capability would have been to pay. You can’t get a Ferrari for the cost of a Honda.”

In the fall of 2007, when Durham Mayor Bill Bell held a press conference to announce that Eye in the Sky, as the camera system is called, was going live, he did it on the steps of Angier Avenue Baptist Church.

At the time, Bell was entrenched in a nasty electoral contest with fellow city councilman and mayoral hopeful Thomas Stith, who repeatedly and pointedly accused Bell of being soft on crime. (Crime had actually dipped since Bell took office in 2001, but that didn’t stop Stith from pressing the issue.)

Eye in the Sky, it was hoped, would buttress Bell’s tough stance on crime.

“We aren’t under any illusion that by installing cameras, you will reduce crime completely,” Bell said. “What we hope these cameras will do is complement the police presence.”

But Eye in the Sky was not close to, as Bell put it, going live. Soon after the announcement arose the first in a long succession of technical issues that derailed the program.

Documents released by the Durham Police Department indicate that Teleport Systems had excellent references. Former Durham Police Chief Steve Chalmers had seen a demonstration of its equipment at a trade show in early 2006. The company’s previous clients, including the City of Baltimore’s Environmental Crimes Unit, were all pleased with the surveillance solutions the company had provided them.

What Durham thought it was buying from Teleport was something similar, an investigative tool and a potential crime deterrent: a system of 13 cameras that could transmit their signal via Internet server to police cruisers equipped with specially designed laptops called Mobile Data Units. From their police cars, Durham officers would be able to tap into the feed and cause the camera to zoom, tilt or swivel. The footage was to be available at a central location in police headquarters, where it could be evaluated, monitored and archived for use in police investigations.

But what the city ended up with was much smaller than what was promised. Seven cameras run on the original system, and are only connected to the network at night because they burden the network during the day. (Six other cameras operate on an entirely different wireless network, one that city officials say is an improvement, although only four function well.)

Officers using the Mobile Data Units could not, as promised by Teleport, control the seven cameras remotely. Attempts to do so often resulted in the cameras losing connection to the system. When the cameras were actually in service, the video transmitted via the wireless system was, according to e-mails obtained by the Indy, not the crisp and fluid of Teleport’s original presentation.

In the streaming video business, the phenomenon is known as “lag.” The video signal is transmitted from the camera via radio transmitter to a central computer or to the Mobile Data Units. Any hiccup in the feed creates a lapse between what is happening on the street and what is appearing on the officer’s screen. The weaker the wireless connection, the more hiccups in the feed. The frame rate then slows to a crawl, causing whatever is within the camera’s field of view to appear and disappear irregularly, and rendering the footage being sent from the cameras, as one Durham police officer bluntly put it, “utterly useless for street crimes investigations.”

According to e-mails exchanged between Jesse Burwell, DPD chief of administrative services, and officials in then-City Manager Patrick Baker’s office, Teleport mistakenly assumed during its initial research that police headquarters had a more expansive Internet network than it actually does.

The signal used by the wireless cameras is dependent on the level of bandwidth. Teleport’s technical team had failed to verify that the Internet network at police headquarters has only a 10-megabyte capacity, not 25 as Washington, Teleport president and CEO, says his team was told. Washington said he told Burwell, who was tasked with shepherding the project; Burwell informed him that, as per the contract, it was Teleport’s responsibility to verify all existing infrastructure.

Without the extra 15 megabytes, the camera signal began fighting for bandwidth with every user on the city’s Internet network, making the video stream transmitted by the cameras choppy and the lag intolerable.

While he does accept responsibility for verifying the department’s internet capacity, Washington maintains that the city provided him with incorrect information. Burwell, in e-mails, refutes that claim, writing that Washington and his team were informed of the Internet capacity at DPD Headquarters and assumed that Time Warner, the city’s Internet provider the additional bandwidth, but without actually verifying it.

The extra speed necessary is available, but at a price: $2,000 per month.

“There was a lack of understanding about what could be done,” Burwell says. “In other words, we started to bake a cake but we didn’t have the right ingredients.”

The baking began in April 2006, when Bell, Baker and Deputy Police Chief Ron Hodge flewat the invitation of Mayor Richard M. Daleyto Chicago to see a demonstration of that city’s public surveillance system.

By then, video surveillance had become an increasingly popular tool for crime reduction. Municipal governments from California to the United Kingdom had begun implementing the latest in digital surveillance technology, with mixed degrees of success. According to a 2006 report by the Durham Police Department’s Special Projects Unit, studies on the effectiveness of video surveillance systems were generally inconclusive. Commissioned shortly after Bell’s return from Chicago, the report examined 13 academic studies on the effects of video monitoring systems and found that those in “city centers” showed “mixed results in their effectiveness in reducing crime.” Five of the systems studied were shown to have alleviated crime. Three failed to help prevent an increase in crime, and the remaining five had no effect whatsoever.

The Chicago system was thought to be an exception, says Baker. Originally consisting of only 18 cameras placed overtly in the city’s central business district, it was later expanded to encompass other, more crime-ridden areas of the city. So impressed was Bell by what he saw that on the plane ride home he pressed upon his city manager that Durham should develop a similar system.

“At the time we were looking for multiple solutions to assist with crime enforcement in northeast-central Durham, and what we saw in Chicago was very exciting,” says Baker, who earlier this year was transferred to the City Attorney’s office after a tumultuous three-and-a-half year tenure as city manager. After he and Bell returned to Durham, they initiated the process that would bring the technology to Durham.

The city first put its feelers out in December 2006. The responses should have been telling.

Metro Police, a Charlotte-based company, indicated that the project was too complex, writing in an e-mail to the city that it could not guarantee the reliability of the wireless technology required to create the system.

Motorola replied that they could not provide a satisfactory system for the roughly $89,934 the city had budgeted for the project.

The only company to submit a bid was Teleport, and that estimate, too, exceeded the city’s budget.

E-mails indicate it was Baker who elected to make the process “informal.” The request for bids would not be advertised. Nor would the city seek more than one bid before awarding a contract.

Joe Clark, city purchasing manager, says that North Carolina does not require city governments to receive more than one bid for non-construction related contracts, but added that generally, “you usually want to get as many bids as possible to get a feel for the market.”

Teleport eventually agreed to bring the project in below the city’s budget, and on March 8, 2007, the City Council approved the contract.

Yet months later, the company was still not close to meeting its the legal obligation. In the weeks after Bell’s 2007 press conference, frustration began to build as none of Teleport’s attempts to improve the system’s performance panned out. On Nov. 15, 2007, Washington sent an e-mail to Burwell, DPD administrative services chief, claiming that Teleport had not guaranteed the performance of the camera system. Burwell countered with a quote from Teleport’s original proposal indicating that it had performed all of the necessary research to implement a “suitable design” for the system.

“If your company felt that it would not be able to guarantee the system’s performance, that fact should have been clearly stated in the proposal,” he wrote.

Burwell, with the blessing of newly arrived Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez, next asked the police department’s attorney to draft a letter informing Washington that Teleport was in breach of contract, later sending the letter to City Manager Patrick Baker’s office for consideration and signature.

“I would recommend that we give them 10-14 days to complete the installation, and if we don’t meet that deadline, then we would pursue a plan of action most beneficial to the city,” wrote Burwell.

But Baker declined to sign, giving Washington a seemingly extraordinary amount of leeway, whereas most city contracts are iron-clad.

“It’s not like a contract in Durham means that you get to it when you feel like it,” explains Baker. “Certainly at that time we were not at all pleased with the performance of the system. We were led to believe that a solution was close. And if we did in fact breach, then now you’ve got to start all over with somebody else. So, it’s depending on the subject matter of the contract how quickly I’m going to hold somebody in breach.”

Meanwhile, others close to the process began to wonder if the project was doomed from the beginning.

“I am not optimistic that Teleport’s most recent attempt to fix the system will result in an acceptable performance level,” wrote Burwell in reply to an e-mail by Deputy City Manager Ted Voorhees. “To get a system like the one described, and reputable vendors like Motorola or IBM to construct it, will take a lot more than the budget I was given to get this done.”

Regardless, Teleport had agreed to deliver the system at that price. But after months of delays and failed solutions, the performance of the six cameras remained unreliable.

Members of the DPD became increasingly vocal about their desire to cut bait. In an e-mail to Patrick Baker dated April 16, 2008, Chief Jose Lopez wrote, “Can we say that enough is enough and cut our losses at this time? I have been unable to see how all this additional work and expense will improve the totality of this system.”

Two months ago, recently hired Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield sent Washington a letter informing him that his company’s services were no longer needed. The letter also requested that Washington submit an invoice to collect the final payment. Documents indicate that Teleport had already absorbed some $30,000 in cost overruns related to the project. The city accepted the system as is, though the performance was still suspect, thereby absolving Teleport of any obligation to improve the performance of the system.

“At some point it was decided that it was as good as it was going to get,” says Baker. “If we were going to get any higher performance out of the system, it would be with another company.”

When Bonfield let Teleport out of the contract, he also, at the recommendation of Burwell, declined its offer for a preventative maintenance contract. The city is shopping for another company to take over but is only now beginning the contracting process. Currently, DPD’s Information and Technical Services division is overseeing the project. According to department head Randy Browning, they are equipped to troubleshoot software and network related problems, but not hardware.

Despite the lingering issues, Baker says that he and Bell, long the project’s champions, remain hopeful that if after the mandated six-month evaluation period the cameras are found to alleviate crime, the “pilot” program can be expanded to other areas of the city.

Chief Lopez says it is early yet in that process, but he concedes measuring the success of the system will be difficult given that the cameras are placed inside the northeast-central Durham target area for Operation Bull’s Eye, the department’s effort to reduce crime on the city’s east side by beefing up street patrols and encouraging community involvement.

In the DPD’s latest crime statistics report, Operation Bull’s Eye is credited with reducing the number of “sound of shots” calls by 15 percent. Violent gun crime is down 30 percent, while protituion-related reports have decreased 42 percent.The report also states there is no evidence that crime is moving outside the target area.

“Violent crime is down in east Durham,” says Lopez. “So now the questions becomes, Did the cameras help?”

Lopez says that he would welcome having another tool to use for investigative purposes, but not if it becomes a choice between cameras and more officers for his understaffed department.

“I’d rather have the officers,” he continues. “I think the community is better served by an individual than a camera.”