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August 28, 2014, 7:10 am

Many city surveillance cameras still not working

In February, The Philadelphia Tribune reported that only about 60 percent of the city’s 216 surveillance cameras were working, and the remaining 40 percent suffered various malfunctions or just weren’t working at all.

Surveillance cameras are a proven technology that police have used to solve crimes by helping investigators identify suspects. But on Wednesday, City Controller Alan Butkovitz released an audit that shows only 47 percent, or 102 of the 216 cameras, are working and functioning properly — at a cost of $136,000 per unit.

Harvey Rice, spokesman for the City Controller’s office, said any previous figures were just not accurate.

“The audit was being conducted around that time,” Rice said. “At this point, some of the cameras are installed but not working, others are installed but have bags over them, so they’re not working and others are just in need of repair. As City Controller Butkovitz said earlier this week, for the money that has been spent on this project, we could have had 200 more police officers on the streets.”

In light of the fact that Philadelphia has seen a spike this year in the number of homicides, 178 as of Tribune press time, Butkovitz said in a press release that the findings of his office were “extremely troubling.”

"The cost is exceedingly alarming, and outright excessive - especially when $13.9 million is equivalent to the cost of putting 200 new police recruits on our streets," Butkovitz said. "It's extremely troubling to find that only 102 of the 216 installed cameras were working properly. At any given time when crime is occurring around our city, only 47 percent of the cameras are able to capture criminal activity at camera locations."

The City Controller’s audit showed that:

  • City records indicated that only 47 percent of video surveillance cameras (102 of 216) were properly functioning. Observations made by Eisner and Amper, LLP disclosed that video images could be viewed for only 9 of 20 randomly selected cameras.
  • At a cost of approximately $136,000 per functioning camera, expenditures to date appeared excessive when compared to the estimate of $3,017 per camera in the planning stages of the project. Additional contracts in the amount of $3.2 million have been awarded for the installation of new cameras, and the repair and maintenance of existing ones.
  • Both OIT (Office of Innovative technology) and the Police Department independently maintain spreadsheets containing detailed information about the inventory of video equipment including the number of cameras, their locations and condition. Aside from the obvious duplication of effort, the two sets of records were not always in agreement.
  • Warranty information and maintenance records for cameras and other video surveillance equipment had not been maintained consistently, and remained in need of organization. As a result, the city may have paid outside vendors to repair cameras that were, and still may be, under warranty.
  • In October 2009, OIT reached an agreement with a vendor to purchase video cameras that were acquired, but not installed prior to the termination of the vendor’s contract. The cameras were delivered to a Streets Department warehouse where, through the end of fieldwork for this review, they still remained. It could not be determined whether these cameras are compatible with those already in use.

Butkovitz said there were problems with the cameras right from the beginning. An unsatisfactory performance from the first vendor, Unisys, resulted in the city terminating its contract. The burden of installing and managing the cameras was taken by the city. Butkovitz also said that the audit found an absence of warranty information and maintenance records for cameras and other video surveillance equipment that was supposed to be maintained by the Office of Innovative Technology.
"Without proper documentation, the city could have paid for services that it already contracted for," Butkovitz said.  "We found numerous unopened boxes containing camera equipment at a warehouse and could not determine if the equipment was even compatible with the cameras currently installed."
According to the City Controller, in January 2012, the City awarded $3.2 million in contracts for maintenance/service, supplies and installation of the video surveillance cameras. And by the time those contracts were confirmed, the cost increased to $3.6 million. This is in addition to the initial $13.9 million that was already spent.
Criminals are frequently identified by images recorded by surveillance cameras, and law enforcement officials often extol their value. For example, back in January, a group of juveniles involved in the beating of 64-year old Edward Schaefer, a Vietnam War veteran were recorded walking down the street moments before the incident. Within hours after police released the images of the suspects, the two boys allegedly responsible were in custody.

On Sunday, May 2, 2010, Linwood Bowser, 20, who was known "Wood", was with friends across from his mother's house on the 1400 block of North 28th Street in the city’s Brewerytown section. At about 12:45 a.m. gunfire exploded in the 2700 block of West Jefferson Street and “Wood” was fatally struck. Investigators said the motive was an argument. He was pronounced dead at Temple University Hospital. So far, police have not made any arrests and a nearby surveillance camera that could have recorded the incident wasn’t operational

"To ensure that every city tax dollar is spent effectively and efficiently, the city needs to weigh the benefits against the cost for allocating an additional $3.6 million," said Butkovitz.  "It needs to update maintenance records for all cameras and determine if any of the current equipment can be put to immediate use. Providing effective public safety needs to be our city's number one priority. It needs to be done in a cost-efficient method to ensure that every tax dollar goes toward efforts that properly protect our citizens."