Police chief gets money for surveillance

Published 7:17 pm Friday, February 4, 2022

Suffolk Police Chief Al Chandler and his department will receive $100,000 to install 27 cameras and implement gunshot detection technology at the city’s borders and high crime areas.

City Council unanimously approved spending the money during its Feb. 2 meeting following a work session discussion on the technology. The money to be used is part of a year-end surplus from the 2020-2021 fiscal year that will also provide $100,000 toward protective clothing for firefighter recruits and $300,000 for the Bennett’s Creek Recreation Center capital project.  Council will need to appropriate that money should it want to keep the program in future years. It was approved as part of the council’s consent agenda, which also included $200,000 from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management for Suffolk Fire & Rescue for technology upgrades to the regional mobile communications center, $195,237 from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to help with installing a hydrodynamic separator at the Suffolk Seaboard Railroad Museum and to amending city code to clarify the roles, makeup and purpose of the Education Committee.

Known as Flock cameras, they are in use, or will be in use, in several Hampton Roads and Western Tidewater localities, including Hampton, Newport News, Williamsburg and Franklin. The cameras are primarily pointed toward the rear of a vehicle, providing information on the type of car and when it had been in the area.

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The gunshot detection device, called Raven, would give officers the potential to respond to a scene before someone calls 911. The technology, company officials say, recognizes audio signatures such as gunshots, screeching tires and breaking glass — sounds typical of crimes in progress.

Several Suffolk communities with homeowner associations are using the Flock technology already.

Company officials addressing council during its Feb. 2 work session said the technology helps reduce crime, and it is safe and reliable, with end-to-end encryption of all its data that is stored securely in the Amazon Web Services Government Cloud.

Flock Director of Sales Mike Venable stressed that the technology is neither facial recognition software nor used for traffic enforcement. He also said the city would own the footage, which the company will never sell or share, and the data is kept for 30 days before it is deleted unless needed as part of an investigation.

Chandler said the technology can be especially useful in detecting stolen vehicles and would be useful in many types of crimes and in helping with missing person cases. His goal is to have 50 such cameras deployed around the city, and that having the technology can help stretch resources for a department that is short-staffed by more than 30 officers.

“What we’ve asked for in the front end is 27 cameras,” Chandler said. “We want to work up 50 and then see where we are. That may not be enough in the end. We may say, ‘Hey, we have some other spots that we want to deal with. But when I talked with (City Manager Al Moor), I told him that we looked at a number, and then we looked at the gunshot technology that we wanted to add. I would be comfortable at this time with working with 27 cameras, but we’ll see where that takes us.

“But if you’re asking me what I would really like to start with, I’d really like to have 50 cameras and some gunshot technology, and I think that gives us a really good start to be able to put cameras in the locations in which we need them.”

He said the department is already comfortable with the technology, with some neighborhoods in the city having the technology and sharing its information with police. Chandler said the department would have to look at its crime trends and heat maps to determine the best places to deploy the cameras.

“This has been invaluable as of late with missing persons,” Chandler said. “It’s something we don’t think about because we’re mainly focused on the criminal activity. But when we have citizens that have gone missing — we just had an incident and the person, we were immediately able to see by the one camera … that we’d had in place in that area, we were able to see that this person has not been in this area. That allowed us to decide we’re not going to put assets in this area. Our assets need to be in this (other) area.”

It then was able to detect the vehicle in a neighboring city — Hampton — that had already been using Flock cameras.

“One of the things that I really appreciate about this particular brand as opposed to maybe some others is that we already have a (memorandum of understanding) with them,” Chandler said. “We’ve already been utilizing this equipment already in different aspects of our city … in several neighborhoods within the city.  So we’re already accustomed to how they work, and the information can go directly to the officers that are working as opposed to having them ping from here, here and here.”

Having the gunshot technology with the camera system, Chandler said, would work better than having the same technology through different companies because it would be more seamless.

Cameras cost $2,500 each, with a $500 fee to replace a damaged camera and a $250 fee to move a camera to a different location. The gunshot detection technology costs $25,000 per year, per square mile.

The police department will lease the technology under a two-year agreement, with the option to renew its use at the end of the lease term. Mayor Mike Duman said the money would be well spent on the program, and councilman Roger Fawcett said Flock’s system would be an asset to fighting crime.

“It does work,” Fawcett said. “It’s working in my neighborhood. I think it’s a good tool.”