State College adding 71 more surveillance cameras

Story posted April 22, 2014 in News by Raychel Shipley

STATE COLLEGE – Penn State students Chelsea Billotte, Amy Haun and Fye Poon stand at the corner of East Calder Way and McAllister Alley, awaiting their bubble tea at the storefront of Tea Time.

Unbeknownst to the young women, about 15 feet away a camera looks down on the intersection, documenting their quick refreshment stop.

The three are genuinely surprised when the camera is brought to their attention, yet they seem to appreciate its role.

“I like it actually,” Haun said. “I have thought when I’m back here, ‘What if something happens? Who would know?’ And now that I see that, I feel a little better.” 

The camera is one of three downtown units operated by the Borough of State College since 2003.   Now the borough is expanding its public and internal surveillance systems, installing 71 new cameras in the municipal building, in parking garages and in selected downtown areas.

Borough Council approved a $450,000 contract to expand the downtown video surveillance system in October.  With it the system will go from wired to wireless. The contract is with CelPlan Technologies Inc. of Reston, Va.

Were the students being watched as they purchased their tea? According to Borough Manager Tom Fountaine, no.

“There was a period where we ran a pilot project to do live monitoring, and what we found is that we did not see a substantial benefit,” Fountaine said. “I can’t remember the last time we did a live-monitor event.”

Instead, the cameras are used to help solve crime, rather than prevent it.

“Generally, the research does not show that cameras are a deterrent to crime,” Fountaine said. “It’s a crime-solving tool as much as anything.”

The borough’s approach is in contrast to that of its neighbor, Penn State, which has more than 2,000 cameras on its main campus.  There, the intent behind using cameras is crime prevention, according to Paul Ruskin of the Office of Physical Plant.

“If the public knows there are cameras in the area, it should have them think twice about doing anything improper,” Ruskin said.

According to Fountaine, the borough’s cameras have signs nearby so the public is aware that they are being watched.  The green, average-sized signs, located across the street from the cameras, read: “This public area may be monitored and/or recorded by video cameras.”

That approach, too, contrasts with that of Penn State, which does not have signs near its cameras.   “The general rule is that if you can’t see a camera, it’s not there,” Ruskin said.

Fountaine says the cameras are aimed at what is in public view and are designed not to peer into private spaces.

Installation of the 71 new cameras is progressing.

“It’s kind of been a moving time frame,” said Hillary Pasch, the borough’s information technology project manager.  Pasch said she has been working with flexible, changing deadlines but hopes to have the project done by the summer.  

According to Pasch, the cameras in the municipal building and the parking garages have been installed, with about 34 allocated, half to the building and the rest to the garages.  

“The downtown cameras are a whole, other story because of the approval process we have to go through,” said Pasch.

Before installation, the borough must get approval for all public surveillance camera locations from the companies that own the buildings or utility poles where the cameras might be installed. Lion Country Electric is doing the installation.

“The company has been able to install very quickly, so once those are approved I don’t foresee it taking to long to get everything installed, up and running,” Pasch said. 

According to Pasch, there will be 14 new camera locations downtown, with three-fourths of those locations already approved.

She said she is looking at placing cameras on Beaver and College avenues in the vicinity of Atherton, Allen, Pugh, McAllister, Locus, Heister, Garner and Sowers streets, and on Calder Way.

The locations were determined by high-traffic areas.

The borough decided not to install rotating cameras.  “Any time we had to pan, tilt, zoom it in any direction, it was always pointing the wrong direction when the crime was happening,” Pasch said.

She said that at each camera mount, multiple units will provide a 360-degree view.

 According to Pasch, staff involved in the project and the vendor did several walk-throughs from different vantage points to determine the best camera locations.

Fountaine explained that cameras in the municipal building and parking garages serve a different purpose than those placed downtown.

 In the garages, cameras monitor revenue control systems, gates and public lobbies.  In the municipal building, cameras are used for risk management. 

“We had a guy come in one night who appeared to be trying to get into one of the offices,” said Fountaine.  “He ended up smashing one of the TV monitors in the lobby. We were able to capture that on video. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a clear look at his face.

“These new systems are better quality video. With the new system I think we would have been able to capture an image and, hopefully, that would have helped with solving that crime.”

According to Pasch, camera footage will be able to be viewed for up to 30 days.

There is a provision in the project to do a test with public surveillance cameras in the Highlands neighborhood, where Penn State fraternities are located, according to Fountaine.

“I don’t know whether that is ever going to happen or not,” he said.  “There is some interest on the part of the neighborhood organization in that area.

“We sort of included it as a ‘this is another phase of the project in the contract,’ but we don’t have the funding for it right now.”

Longtime Highlands residents Laird and Svitlana Jones said they think cameras in the neighborhood could help to solve problems that coincide with the parties that take place there, such as vandalism, robbery and assault.

Trees and other obstructions call into question whether public surveillance cameras would be useful and effective in that neighborhood, Fountaine said.  “We’re reluctant to jump into a project unless we’re sure of the cost benefits.”

(This story first appeared in the Centre Daily Times, April 20, 2014)