One sign that New Orleans is making its way back is that more than 30 Mardi Gras parades were scheduled this year. And, probably more than ever before, the city needs to make sure that the festival comes off without a hitch. This is where some of the technology plans the city’s information chief, Greg Meffert, put into place before Hurricane Katrina may pay off.
Before the storm, the city had installed 25 surveillance cameras to monitor city streets in an effort to reduce crime. The Sony SNC-RZ30N cameras are mounted on utility polesthe cameras get a power feed from the linesand connected to a municipal Wi-Fi network, which is supplied by Tropos Networks. The cameras were placed into problem areas and the port city’s homeland security targets.
“Not a lot of infrastructure goes with them,” says Chris Drake, project manager for New Orleans’ wireless network, which allows the city to easily relocate the cameras to different areas as needs arisesuch as placing more cameras
on parade routes during Mardi Gras. The reason for using wireless networking technology in the first place, according to Drake, was to eliminate the need to deploy wired or fiber optic connections to the camera locations.
Normally, the cameras follow a pre-programmed tour and the video feed is spooled onto a hard drive, where it is kept for 72 hours.
As security issues heighten and new security technologies hit the market, many corporate and government entities are asking their information chiefs to take a greater role in physical security. In New Orleans, technology chief Meffert led the rollout of a video surveillance system, which the city believed could be used to reduce crime. Mayor Ray Nagin promoted the idea of a camera as “a witness that can’t be intimidated.”
And the system seemed to work. A pre-Katrina pilot of the video system, which ran from January to August 2004, showed a 57% reduction in the murder rate and a 25% reduction in vehicle theft in areas where the cameras were initially deployed; areas where the cameras were installed in production in early 2005 saw a 50% reduction in murders and a 30% drop in car theft.
Yet, the effectiveness of cameras in preventing crime is a matter of debate, says John Firman, director of research for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Juries, however, are heavily swayed by video evidence, he says, and many such cases never make it to trial. Police departments besides New Orleans’ often find “that when they go to take a case to court, they’re going to get a guilty plea if there is video evidence,” Firman says.
“The camera is a witness that has a photographic memory, and you don’t have to worry about it testifying in court,” says Detective Mike Carambat, who established a video analysis unit within the New Orleans Police Department.
As of early 2006, however, about half of the 25 cameras that were deployed before the storm were still offline due to a lack of electric power. And there has been less work for the remaining cameras since many of areas of the city are still deserted.
So in late February, as the city prepared for its first Mardi Gras parades since Katrina, cameras were being redeployed from other parts of the city into areas like the French Quarter, where revelers have been known to go from rowdy to violent.
Drake thinks this will make a difference, noting that there had been a shooting along the parade route in 2004 but that the 2005 Mardi Gras, the first one for which the cameras were deployed, was calmer. As he points out: “We had highly publicized the fact that the cameras would be watching.”