Smile! You could be on the Denver Police Department's candid camera
Nothing about Denver Police Department headquarters at 1331 Cherokee Street screams high-tech. The conference room where I meet Lieutenant Ernie Martinez has torn-fabric chairs that look like Chief Gerry Whitman fished them from a dumpster; Martinez leads me down a hallway lined with tile that might have been fresh in 1977, when the building was new, but now has the color of faded leather. When we reach a door labeled HALO, which stands for High Activity Location Observation, he scans a card over an electronic keypad on the wall. The heavy lock on the door clicks open, and suddenly it's like we're standing in an Apple store.
The room — which was once just a large corner office — has six flat-screen televisions mounted to the walls, three computer-terminal stations and several other sleek, flashing doohickeys. Each of the flat-screens shows a rotating series of live images from around Denver — Coors Field, East Colfax Avenue, 16th Street, Civic Center Park, LoDo — as the cameras pan their surroundings and zoom in on cars, pedestrians, dogs, bicyclists. It's like central Denver crammed into one visual explosion.
"As you see, the screens are labeled 1,2,3,4,5 and 6. Those are screens that are all HALO-operated cameras," he explains. "We can bring up any type of view, whether it's a 1x1, a 4x4, a 6x6. These tend to be optimal for us unless we have an operation that will necessitate a little larger view on screens 2 and 5."
For eight months, I'd been asking Martinez to show me the command center for the police department's controversial video-surveillance program, which today includes 69 wireless mobile cameras and links to at least 190 stationary video feeds operated by the city's traffic department and RTD. When he finally invited me to be among the first members of the media allowed in the room, I told myself that I would keep away from any 1984 cliches. But as Martinez proudly describes his efforts to make Denver a leader in public surveillance, I realize he looks like the guy from the Big Brother Is Watching You posters. Dark hair, high brow, steady brown eyes that seem to gaze both directly at you and around you.
The DPD's wireless, mobile cameras have remained frozen in the same downtown locations where they were placed for the Democratic National Convention. After nine months of wrangling with the city's bureaucratic process, Martinez is finally ready to move HALO into Denver neighborhoods, targeting high-crime areas. "There's no way to put cops on every street corner," he says. "Utilizing cameras is a good force multiplier; we put the eyes on the ground and assist officers by gathering evidence and improving response time."
He imagines a future platform that will integrate many more surveillance cameras into a seamless system being monitored 24/7. But for now, he has to make do with his five-member team, which can only watch the screens during two shifts a day. At night the HALO cameras keep recording, but no one is watching.
So after leaving the tour, I decide to conduct my own ride-along of these video robo-cops, hitting the mean streets of Denver at night, seeing what the HALO cameras see, watching what they watch.
11 p.m., June 11: 33rd and Holly
I situate myself beneath the surveillance camera that hangs off a long metal arm attached to the rear of the Pauline Robinson Branch Library, right by what had been the Holly Square Shopping Center. This camera was installed in 2006, the first in a pilot program that would become HALO. Chief Whitman had decided that his department needed to make better use of technology, so he tapped Martinez, then a 21-year veteran of the force, to look into video surveillance. Martinez began researching camera technology and other cities with burgeoning programs, such as Baltimore and Chicago. But even those cities were far behind major metropolitan areas in Britain, which today has an estimated 4.2 million closed-circuit cameras taping public places.
Martinez decided to go for a camera that used fiber-optic cables and DVR recordings in his initial experiments. Within the first week of testing, the camera had taped a man shooting at an officer after the officer attempted to stop him at the then-operating strip mall. "And the suspect subsequently was chased and arrested an hour later after he holed up in an innocent person's camper," Martinez recalls.
There's not much for the camera to look at now, though. Over the course of thirty minutes, only one person crosses the lot. The Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center is closed, as is Sanchez Taquería. All that remains of the actual shopping center are the pillars, which jut upward from the parking lot like teeth. The building was demolished earlier this year, months after a group of gang members allegedly set it on fire using Molotov cocktails in retaliation for a fight at a nightclub. Reportedly, the HALO camera filmed one of the firebombs bouncing off the building and lighting one of the arsonists on fire. Nine people have since been indicted.
Midnight: Pennsylvania and Colfax
I find the camera attached to a pole above the Great Wall Chinese Restaurant, in an area with plenty of action. I watch all sorts of people walk past, some screaming obscenities at one another.
This camera is one of six installed in 2007 as part of a public/private partnership grant to counter rampant drug dealing on the block; HALO cameras were also placed in parts of downtown Denver; Manual, Lincoln, Montbello and East high schools all installed digital IP cameras, to be monitored by school security staff. But the cameras on Colfax — and their effect on privacy — drew the most attention. "The scientific research shows that these cameras do not work to reduce crime," says Chris Calabrese of the ACLU's New York-based Technology and Liberty Project, which runs the website www.youarebeingwatched.us. "Study after study shows that surveillance cameras push crime around to other locations, but they don't actually reduce the overall rate of crime."
Martinez doesn't have any studies of Denver's overall program, but he can cite stats about this particular stretch of Colfax: "Crime decreased anywhere from 30 to 45 percent in the areas that we had cameras." Certainly, the drug dealers have been replaced by hipsters smoking cigarettes — but then, cool new bars have also moved into the area. Have the cameras reduced crime, or have they just moved it somewhere else?
1 a.m.: 1000 Chopper Circle
The HALO camera I've positioned myself under is mounted to a light pole in front of the Pepsi Center. With an egg-shaped dome and transmitting nodes sticking out from the distinct white box, it almost looks like a high-tech vulture glowering down — but it's actually part of a Rapid Deployment Surveillance System from Avrio Group, a Maryland-based surveillance-technology company.
What makes these cameras different from closed-circuit cameras is that there are no cables; the images are sent though the air in an elaborate, Internet-based "mesh network." This means that the cameras can be rapidly deployed in high-crime areas. "We hit the technology gap at the right time with wireless mesh technology," Martinez says.
HALO also received start-up grants from the Urban Area Security Initiative, a federal program established after 9/11 to prepare cities for terrorist events, which paid for twelve cameras. But it really hit the mother lode when the Democratic National Committee chose Denver for its August 2008 convention: A million dollars in federal security money enabled Martinez to buy fifty more $20,000 Avrio cameras for use during the convention, when the images were routed between sixty federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies. One of those cameras was placed over the "Free Speech Zone" area for protesters outside — way outside — the Pepsi Center, and might have actually filmed the five people willing to use that area. Meanwhile, overblown fears of protesters prompted downtown businesses and building owners to install an estimated 400 more surveillance cameras on their premises.
But there's nothing much to watch tonight on these DNC cameras. A twenty-something male comes lurching down the sidewalk with the swaying gait of a severely drunk person. Since this Avrio camera has night vision along with full pivot and zoom capabilities that can read a license plate at 200 yards, I decide to zoom in myself. The twenty-something stops, then lies down near the big Pepsi logo. He looks like he might vomit, but instead he pulls out his cell phone.
2 a.m.: 20th and Blake
The clubs are emptying out, and you can hear the bouncers screaming at people to finish their drinks. Guys standing in clusters catcall at a gaggle of short-skirted females. The cameras can be useful for crowd control, Martinez says, but they still need to have police on the ground, because crowds can be unpredictable.
Indeed, one girl now lifts up her skirt and flashes her butt. She is wearing black lace panties, which she pulls down seductively as the guys cheer. Her friends pull her into a car and speed away.
The DPD has adopted a lengthy HALO policy that states the system is "exclusively for public safety and law-enforcement purposes." Other cities have had problems with police using the cameras to zoom in on attractive females; two officers in New York were disciplined for recording a couple having sex on a rooftop. Denver's policy prohibits cameras from looking into private residences, and all recordings are automatically purged after thirty days unless marked as evidence.
Detective Charles Boyles, who spent fifteen years in various local narcotics task forces before joining the HALO unit, points out that it's not just citizens who are being watched. "Some officers think that the cameras are there to watch them," he notes. In fact, it was directly beneath this light pole — before this particular camera was installed — that an undercover officer smashed a man's face into the concrete as crowds headed to Coors Field for a Rockies game. The officer charged the man with resisting arrest and assault. But an independent camera crew getting stock footage of the Rockies game had filmed the arrest, and after the teeth-smashing was played in the media, the charges against the man were dropped. The officer was suspended from the force and is now awaiting trial on charges of assault.
3 a.m.: 14th and Cherokee
Three HALO cameras are mounted to light poles right in front of DPD headquarters, recording nothing right now but cop cars and vans entering and leaving the basement garage. It seems somewhat counterintuitive to locate mobile video surveillance equipment directly outside the place where you are running your surveillance operations; couldn't you just look out the window?
On my visit to the control room, I spoke with one of the guys doing the watching. Chris Selle is not a cop, but he's run video surveillance systems for thirteen years. One of his screens lists calls logged into the department's computer-dispatch system; he'll look at the address, and if there's a camera close by, he'll pull it up on screen. "It can be difficult if there are several calls at one time," he says. "The priority is what's most important, so you take that."
During Selle's second month on the job, a passerby called 911 about a domestic-violence dispute on the street. Selle found the location and zoomed in on a man beating his wife with a chain attached to his wallet. By the time officers got to the scene, the fight was over and the woman said she didn't want to press charges. But the man was arrested anyway, and when he saw the surveillance video, he pleaded guilty.
That's one of the ways the cameras help improve law enforcement, Martinez says. "It isn't some Orwellian type of product," he explains. "You look at all the cameras in the area. The average American is on camera at least fifteen times a day. You go to retail stores and there are cameras there. People have cameras on their phones. Everywhere you go, there are cameras."
These three cameras will soon go somewhere else. Police commanders and neighborhood groups are clamoring to get HALO out on the streets, and Martinez hopes to be redeploying cameras around the city over the next two months.
For privacy advocates, surveillance projects like HALO are just one more slip down the slope to us all becoming Tom Cruise in Minority Report. "People often behave differently when they think they're being watched — especially if they're engaged in something like a protest," says the ACLU's Calabrese. "For police, it has led to voyeurism and racial profiling, where minorities end up being the ones having the cameras actually zoomed in on them."
"We have every possible control to ensure that first- and fourth-amendment rights are not violated," says Martinez.
I watch the streetlights change from green to red. A skinny fox emerges from behind a corner and skitters past my car. I look into the black domes of the HALO cameras and wonder if there's a warm body behind them in the control room right now. I wonder if they've zoomed in on me, a vaguely ethnic man with an overgrown beard, a man sitting alone in his car staring at surveillance cameras across from police headquarters.
I'd probably watch me, too.