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Trading Up on Surveillance at Pittsburgh’s Housing Authority

How a Mid-Sized Housing Authority Took the Leap into 21st Century Surveillance to Reduce Crime and Improve Quality of Life

July 2, 2013

In Pittsburgh, Pa., residents of housing authority properties were afraid, and their quality of life was suffering. Shootings often went unreported, a lack of usable evidence kept criminal elements on the streets, and residents were being victimized.

Edward Mauk of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP) knew it was time for a change. As a CFO of a mid-sized enterprise with 290 employees, serving some 10,000 families, he has to scrutinize his decimal points to make sure that the books are balanced and the federally funded enterprise stays afloat. However, crime rates in the Housing Authority’s communities were climbing, and the authorities didn’t have the level of evidence needed to remove criminal elements from the neighborhoods they were terrorizing.

So, as leaders of the mid-sized enterprise, Mauk and his team banded together to invest in a large-sized security system that offered him stronger legal evidence, the ability to audit maintenance and security officer tours, and the chance to offer residents a better quality of life.


Measuring the Bottom Line

Statistics vary per region, but in many countries, small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) account for more than half of a national GDP. This makes SMEs an essential part of any economy. The classification for a business to qualify to be listed as an SME also varies per region. In the United States, a maximum of 500 employees is stated, while in other parts of the world, it varies, of course. Oracle has been seen to further describe mid-sized businesses as having revenues below $500-million per year. The importance of security within organizations of all sizes, including these SMEs, is clear.

While their security risks are largely the same as some Fortune 500 enterprises, some problems small businesses may face include lack of specific training, small to non-existent security budgets and more projects than personnel.

A successful business works on the basis of revenue growth and loss prevention. Small and medium-sized enterprises are particularly hit hard when either one or both of these business requirements suffer. Crime rates, a sinking reputation (“the Housing Authority stigma,” says Mauk) and badly run maintenance can easily turn away new and existing customers if such situations are not handled appropriately and quickly. This may, in turn, impact on the enterprise’s bottom line.

“As a housing authority, we are very concerned about our sites,” Mauk says. “We had several cameras installed that we were hodge-podging together, if you will, and trying to get some kind of coverage. A couple of us got together and decided that we wanted to coordinate a very comprehensive security package. We wanted to network all of the cameras, get full coverage of all of our sites, and have a control center where we can monitor it. And that’s the genesis of it.

“We weren’t satisfied with what we had on our own,” he adds.

The disparate array of legacy pan-tilt-zoom cameras were frequently pointed in the completely wrong direction, producing poor or unusable evidence to crimes committed on HACP property. Crimes often went unsolved as a result, because residents were afraid to come forward and report shoot outs and brawls, leaving authorities to discover the incidents weeks if not months later.

This was a team project – Mauk wasn’t alone in championing the cause at the mid-sized enterprise. He was joined at the table by A. Fulton Meachem, Jr., previous executive director of HACP; Joy Pekar-Miller, Director of Public Safety; and Caster Binion, previous COO and current executive director.

Starting with the original concept in 2007, the team has been attending all of the design, integration and project meetings throughout the multi-year deal, splitting up the responsibilities so no one person was drafted into sole ownership. A group approach helped the HACP continue its normal operations while building a better surveillance system for its residents.

“Our vision from the start was to set up a state-of-the-art video surveillance system,” says Mauk. “Obviously, cost was a major concern – we are a federally funded agency, and we have to monitor our expenditures very closely. But at the same time, we wanted to have a system that was worth the investment, and not just spending money for the sake of saying we have a surveillance system.”

Plus, as federal funding continues to wane, Mauk is constantly balancing the budget with providing an adequate level of service and a good product to HACP’s customers.

By investing in a long-term partnership, the Housing Authority developed an overarching surveillance program in 18 communities around the Pittsburgh area – collecting evidence to prosecute crime, mitigate the risk of future criminal activity, enforce exclusionary lists and add value to the enterprise.


Building a Quiet Revolution

Through its partnership with Samsung, HACP installed 900 cameras in 18 locations; all of the unreliable legacy cameras were removed. Each camera is either a pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) or a megapixel (1.3 to 3 MP) in order to get high-quality forensic evidence of crimes.

 “People are afraid to come forward in some of these areas. Cameras aren’t afraid to come forward,” Mauk says.

“The irony is: a lot of the people who cause problems on our property are not our residents; they’re not the people that live there. They’re people who come into the community, prey on the people who live there, and it’s very problematic for us, because we have to keep them out.

“People can only do so much. At a certain point, you really need that enhanced technology as a way to enforce an exclusionary list or things of that nature,” says Mauk.

According to Larry Shank, Management Information Systems Director for HACP, the installation’s basic infrastructure consists of IP cameras that are powered over Ethernet (PoE), with the feed going directly into a local server-based NVR. The video can then be viewed using a Milestone VMS platform within the command center in downtown Pittsburgh. The VMS system displays a composite of images from the server, not the cameras themselves, which allows the system to run smoothly without interrupting any video feeds. Fiber was run to every location in order to maintain consistent and rapid transmission speeds.

Now, touring an HACP community, nearly every light pole is adorned with a camera, possibly three. Streets in these neighborhoods are owned by the Housing Authority, and cameras are observing every corner. Community spaces, such as playgrounds and after-school program locations, are also monitored, but you have to be actively looking for security to start noticing all of the equipment.

“These aren’t the big bulky cameras that you see on ‘The Wire,’” says Mauk. “These are small, dome-type cameras; they’re installed high up, they’re out of the way – they’re high enough that they’re not easily accessible. Obviously, someone could shoot them out, but they don’t make for the ideal target. We tried to keep the location as inconspicuous as possible when we set them up, and that’s part of the design,” he adds.

If a camera is disabled, however, an alert is sent out in real-time through the VMS system.

But the security officers at the front desk of each high-rise and in each guardhouse located at the entrances to the communities are more overt security presences – they check each person’s ID upon entry, and that intentionally yet unobtrusively poses each person squarely in front of multiple cameras.            

In the guardhouses, four cameras are deployed – one inside the building to monitor the private security officer and whomever he or she is interacting with, while the other three are recording every car and person that approaches or leaves the community. Those cameras provide high-resolution video evidence of when a suspect’s car might have left the facility; its make, model and license plate number; and even which direction it went.

Inside the high-rises, often for elderly residents or those with special needs, a security officer monitors surveillance video from his or her location – cameras watch every hallway and common area, including the lobby, management office and entrances to the on-site health clinic.

“A person can’t be everywhere at one time,” says Mauk, “but a guard at the front desk of a high-rise can look at a monitor of 50 cameras and see the activity that’s going on, that you could never cover and be cost-effective by just putting people on patrol.”


Courtroom Successes, Neighborhood Security

“From a cost perspective, we pay a lot of money for security,” Mauk says. “We’re trying to create an environment that can make for safer communities, solve crimes when they happen, and provide some coverage from a monitoring perspective. It’s all about efficiency – we’re trying to use technology to create efficiencies in our operations.”

“The first success, right off the bat, was that we have a known actor who frequents our property – he doesn’t live there; he’s not on a lease – but he was on our property and he was shooting at another individual,” says Joy Pekar-Miller, Director of Public Safety. “Of course, no one called 911; no one called anybody, but we were able to see it on the video. We were able to identify the guy doing the shooting, and he had a little rap sheet already. We took everything before the judge, and the judge gave him 8-10 (years). We then became the victim. When they were shooting, a bullet happened to hit one the buildings, nicked it a little bit – not a lot of damage – but enough for us to be a victim and be able to prosecute.

“We have a lot of success,” Miller says. “People know we have the cameras. People still believe they don’t work; residents are saying ‘You can’t see anything,’ but the police are using them.”

Through the new system, HACP employees can quickly pull up evidence whenever law enforcement calls with an incident report – it could take 15 minutes or a few hours, depending on how much information the police provide, Miller says, but increased opportunities for prosecution and closed cases have police racing to get the best evidence from HACP.

“They’re excited to solve crimes,” she says. “This new system is giving them the tools to do that, while keeping our locations more secure.”

“At the very least, we’re taking people off the street,” says Mauk of the HACP’s progress in crime reduction. “I do believe we’re seeing a major reduction – we don’t show where the cameras are and we don’t point them out, but they’re everywhere. So things are happening, and when they do, we have pictures. We’re talking with the police, and we don’t have to say ‘We don’t have a camera on that spot,’ or ‘We don’t have video of that,’ which is the way things used to be. We had cameras, but they all just seemed to miss, or they weren’t pointed in the right direction, or you got fuzzy picture.

“Now, you have crystal clear pictures,” he says of the security video cameras. “We can show the acts; we can show the perpetrators leaving. At some point, your face is going to get caught – there are just too many cameras monitoring too much real estate at the same time, and recording it.”

Whenever an incident occurs, the video can be accessed at the command center, where the HACP team burns the video evidence requested to a disk and hands it, along with an incident report, over to law enforcement investigators. Four to five times a week (depending on the number of incidents), the reports are picked up and processed by the investigators.

“We’re very proud of this system, and we’ve already been able to have an impact on this community,” says Caster Binion, Executive Director of the HACP. “We’ve been able to put people in jail (because of the system), and it’s a plus. It goes so far that we have people out there with dogs (especially pitbulls) who are not supposed to have dogs, but we can find out.”

The system also keeps the administration apprised of situations regarding neighborhood nuisances like solicitors – they can observe through the system who is knocking on doors and then dispatch security personnel to escort them from the property.

The new cameras are playing their part in incident prevention as well: “News gets around,” Mauk says. “People ask ‘You caught that on film?’ like they can’t believe it. It’s amazing – they don’t know that we’ve done it. We didn’t advertise it. We didn’t go out there and say ‘Here’s where all the cameras are!’ They’re there, and from word of mouth, people know – if you’re going to do dirt, you might not want to consider these communities because they’re watching and recording it, and it will show up at your trial date. And that’s the biggest deterrent there is.”

The new system also keeps staff safe, Mauk says. HACP employees could be called out to a site in the middle of the night, and having reliable surveillance monitoring their progress mitigates their risk of assault or harassment.

Aiding in the solving of crimes, he says, keeps them from becoming repeated crimes, which keeps costs to the enterprise low. While the crime rate at Housing Authority property does not directly affect federal funding, a large chunk of the HACP’s budget comes from rent paid by tenants. If residents are afraid to live in a community, they will take their rent money elsewhere. However, safer communities attract more renters, who are more likely to stay long-term, reducing the number of vacancies.

As a CFO, Mauk says, “My concern with the money is first and foremost. I want to make sure there’s value added to doing this. The easiest thing you can do with regards to cameras is nothing, but then you have crime as a general course of business, and you don’t have the tools to address it. It takes away from the quality of life that our residents should be entitled to.” The money – a more than $4 million investment – would have been spent either way, Mauk says, either by addressing crime after-the-fact or making a conscious quality-of-life decision to improve the facilities as a whole.


Planning for Tomorrow’s Technology

The system is also being used to add value and efficiency to the Housing Authority. The surveillance system facilitates guard tour audits and maintenance monitoring – each security officer is required to stop by several hundred checkpoints during the average tour, and at each one, they must be visible while passing by a surveillance camera. Random daily audits ensure that the security officers are completing their tours and checking all trouble areas.

“There’s a lot of value in putting in a quality system versus trying to do cheap activities, to try to do this on the cheap,” Mauk says. “You might be able to do that, but you’ll spend more time and money on the back end, and you won’t have the kind of results that you wanted. We obviously don’t have a lot of money that we can spend. We have to get out of each dollar the most we can. Sometimes when you’re doing things and you’re trying to watch the cost too much, you get a significantly inferior product and you end up spending more money at the end of the day.”

“From the business side, we can monitor from a central location,” says Mauk. “We can monitor maintenance… It’s not just crime. We really wanted to abate crime. We really want it to solve crime, but at the same time we can use it for other business activities.”

“The other thing from an operations side,” says Binion, “if it snows, we can see if the snow is being removed in a timely manner. So the bottom line is, even though it’s a security system, it’s an operations system. It allows us to maintain our investment. We tell everybody – we’ve got the best system in town, and we show off,” Binion says.

For example, Mauk says, several months ago there was a fire at an HACP property. Through the surveillance system, they could evaluate how quickly the fire spread, whether the person inside the building got out and when, and whether there was any reasonable suspicion of arson (“We didn’t see any kids running away with a gas can, so it’s doubtful,” says Mauk). This helped the Housing Authority relay accurate video evidence to its insurance provider, helping to enable a quick response.

The HACP is also in the process of beta-testing a host of other features through Samsung, including motion and sound detection, automatic tracking and facial detection. Additional future goals include streaming surveillance video feeds directly to the police stations and squad cars for faster investigations and response.

“It’s safe to say that we’re only using a fraction of its capacity,” Mauk says. “As we go forward, we intend to use technology – There’s a whole host of things we will be able to do.”

“This project is never really going to be completed,” Mauk says. “It’s always going to be a work in process to a certain degree. When we get to the point where we’re using the full functionality, there’ll be a new functionality that we want to have. It’s just a matter of weighing the cost of the new technology and implementing it versus the benefits that we get.”   

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