Do you ever get that funny feeling you’re being watched? Well if you’re anywhere near downtown Denver during the Democratic National Convention, you probably are.
Over the past three weeks, the Denver Police Department has quietly rolled out an ultra-high-tech network of wireless cameras that have put much of the city center under 24-hour observation –- or “extreme video surveillance,” according to the manufacturer, Maryland-based Avrio Group. The system was paid for out of the $50 million in federal grant moey the city received for DNC security.
What makes the Rapid Deployment Surveillance System different from traditional closed-circuit cameras is that there are no cables; the images are sent through the air, digitally, in an elaborate internet-based “mesh network.” This means the cameras can be put up and taken down quickly, allowing the system to monitor any number of locations, groups and events during a given period.
In Denver, the distinctive, white RD Pole Cameras can now be spotted attached to light poles, building roofs and parking garages around the city. While similar to webcams with a wireless internet hook-up, these cameras can pivot and zoom, giving them the ability to read a license plate from 200 yards away.
For example, the newly-installed camera on the Greek Amphitheater in Civic Center Park, where many protest-related events will take place, could focus on an individual 300 feet across the park at Seal Fountain -- and read the title of a book they’re carrying.
Not only are they the eyes of law enforcement, these cameras can actually gather intelligence data themselves. The cameras can be equipped with sensors that recognize gunshots and triangulate with other cameras to find the location. They can also detect illegally parked cars, detect abandoned bags or loiterers, and count people in a crowd.
In 2005, the DPD didn’t even have a video surveillance program. The next year they introduced the High Activity Location Observation (HALO) initiative that has since installed hundreds of CCTV cameras at schools, public buildings and street intersections across the city, using grants from the Department of Homeland Security and a program run by the retailer Target. And in the run-up to the DNC, private property owners of office, retail and apartment buildings have installed hundreds of surveillance cameras of their own, citing fears of protests and riots.
Now, with the introduction of the Avrio wireless camera network, Denver has become one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the nation.
How many cameras does the city now have? No one knows. The officers in charge of the HALO program, Lt. Ernie Martinez and Det. Chuck Boyles, have consistently declined to offer details on the system, citing security concerns. When they asked vendors for bids earlier this year, they said they were seeking “a 20-camera wireless network” in downtown Denver and near the Pepsi Center. But Westword has taken photographs of more than 60 of the cameras throughout the city, including dozens in and around Civic Center Park.
In a report to City Council, officials disclosed that the contract with Avrio was $947,364, quite a small amount for the number of cameras in the photographs. A 60-camera system that Avrio built for Buffalo, New York, earlier this year cost more than $3 million.
Avrio’s local manager, Ed Thomas, a former cop and former City Councilman, wasn’t able to offer particulars on the system. “I’d like to but I’ve been told all questions have to go through the police department.”
Right now those officials are likely hunkered down in the several new “war rooms” the department has reportedly set up for the DNC, inside the police headquarters on 1331 Cherokee Street. Live video surveillance are being watched on as many as a dozen newly purchased flat screen television monitors. The surveillance feed also leads to the recently disclosed Multi-Agency Command Center at the Federal Center in Lakewood, where representatives of 62 agencies – CIA, FBI, ICE and ATF them -– can monitor the images from the ground, as well as satellite imagery of the city. An intelligence-crunching “Super Fusion” center has also been opened in Centennial, south of Denver.
According to DPD spokesman Sonny Jackson, “We get to keep all the cameras.” So while these federal command centers are only supposed to operate during the week of the DNC, Denver's new wireless camera network is here to stay.–-Jared Jacang Maher
Some more camera photos for your viewing pleasure:
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