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.