BY TIM POTTER
The security-camera system that will help police respond faster to trouble in Wichita’s Old Town entertainment district is about to go live.
The monitoring room for cameras to watch patrons and partiers in Old Town has quietly taken shape in a fifth-floor room at City Hall. Some of the 72 cameras – capable of providing such clear images that a name tag can be read from the top of a building – will be installed beginning in the next few weeks.
The system will allow staffers – and eventually volunteers – to spot crime as it begins and send police officers before someone calls 911.
“It’s a game-changer,” said police Deputy Chief Jose Salcido.
He hopes it will be operating as soon as late May, perhaps mid-June.
Initially, the monitoring will be during peak times for potential trouble in Old Town – the early morning hours from Thursday through Sunday when crowds leave the entertainment district and fights tend to break out.
Eventually, Salcido said, the Police Department would like to have someone watching the monitors 24/7.
The system will put Wichita on the same level as some of the largest cities in preventing and responding to crime, Salcido said. The monitoring will prevent crime because people will know they are being watched, he said.
“You’re going to have a crime reduction without even having to arrest anybody.”
Eventually, for example, the system could equip a speaker on a camera that could tell someone right on the spot: “Stop urinating!”
Other examples: A staffer in the control room could notice a person staggering to a car and send police to intercept the person before a potential DUI. The staffer could see a man leading away what appears to be a heavily intoxicated woman – and prevent a potential rape.
Staff watching the cameras can get real-time information to officers so “your officer is not walking in there blind any more,” Salcido said. The person in the control room can relay a precise description and location of a person as police respond.
In February, the City Council approved a $618,000 contract with Sandifer Engineering and Controls to install the wireless security camera system.
Since then, police and city officials went to Kansas City, Mo., to see how police there are running a similar system.
Although the Kansas City system doesn’t use volunteers, other police systems around the country do, Salcido said.
Volunteers to help watch
Commissioned officers will monitor the Wichita cameras at first, but there will be a “slow transition” to volunteers, Salcido said.
“It’s a skill we can teach people,” he said. It’s being able to recognize behaviors and body language that signal when crimes are about to happen.
The people monitoring the cameras also have to be able to observe and react without bias, Salcido said.
Some of the volunteers could be retired officers. Up to four people at a time would monitor the cameras.
“It won’t just be a loose volunteer force,” Salcido said. “It will be very structured. They’ll be vetted very well.”
Although using volunteers will save money, the main aim is “to bring the community into department operations,” he said.
The monitoring will begin in Old Town because that’s where the biggest crowds are concentrated. But police hope that businesses, neighborhood associations and other entities also will install cameras and contract with the city to monitor them, Salcido said. Individual homeowners also could pay to tie in. Corporate donors could help cover high-crime areas, he said.
The goal is to add 1,400 neighborhoods, businesses and other entities within two years.
The system could be augmented with mobile cameras, allowing police to track someone across the city.
Police also could eventually add cameras to scan license tags and monitors that can detect gunfire.
The system keeps recordings for 30 days.
Old Town perspective
Jason Van Sickle, president of the Old Town Association, said Friday that the security monitoring system “is a great example of a true public-private partnership.”
It began, Van Sickle said, with Old Town paying for its own security camera system that was monitored from a police substation in Old Town. But it was a small system with what has become dated technology. Still, he said, “We found it was an incredibly valuable tool” in providing key evidence in crimes.
The association, made up of Old Town businesses and residents, asked that the city and police work with them to improve and expand security, he said.
Van Sickle, an apartment developer who lives and works in Old Town, said he has not heard of privacy concerns about the security system. He thinks that is because people view Old Town as a public place – a large outdoor shopping area. “You wouldn’t think twice” about a security camera at a mall, he said.
Van Sickle, in the process of being admitted to a reserve police officer program, said he expects to be one of the volunteers who will be trained to watch the new monitors.