They are everywhere.
In schools, hospitals, grocery stores, churches, car washes and highways. Surveillance cameras have become as much a part of the American landscape as apple pie and lawsuits.
“If you are in a public place you can just about assume you’re on camera,” said John Knox, owner of Knox Integrated Systems, a company that installs security systems.
Consider the numbers:
The Tennessee Department of Transportation has 357 SmartWay cameras along highways, mainly through the state’s major cities, including 50 in Knox County,
More than 595 cameras are deployed in just dormitories at the University of Tennessee. How many are on the entire campus not even UT knows, but the number is certainly well over a thousand.
More than 200 Public Building Authority cameras operate in and on various city and county properties.
More than 1,500 are in and around Knox County Schools – 90 in Hardin Valley Academy alone.
The Knoxville Police Department has 354 vehicles, each with a camera on board. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office has roughly 125 cruisers equipped with cameras.
Red-light camera systems click away at 15 intersections around Knoxville.
Steven Wyatt, federal spokesman at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, says security cameras there “number in the hundreds.” Exactly how many cameras are there and how far they reach is not disclosed.
Businesses in general tend to keep quiet about the number of cameras they deploy. West Town Mall, Pilot Travel Centers and Weigel’s, for example, turned down requests to talk about security issues. But, the smoky domes and little, white boxes are so prevalent in and around such businesses that nobody gives them much thought.
Two reasons are behind the camera boom.
The first is money.
“Cost-effectiveness is a huge part of it,” said Dale Smith, executive director of the Knoxville Public Building Authority. He points out that securing World’s Fair Park would take seven or eight guards working around the clock, but with the nine cameras there, he needs only one or two guards – who aren’t working all of the time.
“To have a security presence is cost-prohibitive, and technology has made it a lot less costly,” he says. “The cameras don’t sleep, and they don’t eat doughnuts.”
Knox, who got into security systems in the early 1980s when surveillance cameras amounted to less than 5 percent of the business, is vice president of the national Electronic Security Association and often represents the industry in Washington.
“The boom is still going on,” he said. “The last five years, when it (cameras) went from analog to digital, the price went way down because so many people started buying them. The cameras now are so much cheaper and so much better. And, they are available at many price levels.
“It used to cost $5,000 for one camera and now those are down to $1,000. You can get them as cheap as $100.”
Reason No. 2? The cameras work.
“We used to have bomb threats called in about once a day,” says Lt. Mac Doss, supervisor of safety and services with the Public Building Authority, which began installing its cameras seven years ago. “We have had two in the past six years.”
“When we took over management of the security at the health department we heard that a prostitution ring was being run in their parking lot and the department’s employees were complaining of feeling threatened,” PBA’s Smith says. “We put up a fence, then we put up cameras and signage that said there were surveillance cameras on site, and that basically stopped it cold.”
“When we took over management of city garages, one had a real history of automobile theft and vandalism. We put cameras in there and it became a nonissue.”
Now, city garages average about 10 cameras each.
Lt. Robert Hubbs of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office Crime Analysis Unit tells of a rape case at a Laundromat in South Knoxville.
“The investigating officer asked to check out the (nearby) red-light camera video thinking he might see the car go through,” Hubbs said. “We did better than that. The guy ran a red light at Moody (Avenue) and Chapman (Highway). We had him.”
“They (cameras) do serve as a deterrent,” says Lt. Keith Lambert, who oversees the University of Tennessee Police Department’s surveillance program, “Criminals love the dark, but they are less likely to do things when they know there is at least the potential that somebody is seeing what they are doing.”
A section of 16th Street from the Panhellenic Building toward the UT campus is considered a potential problem area. To combat that situation, 13 cameras are installed there, and they are monitored continuously.
“We have had some success with seeing people who are committing a crime,” Lambert says. “There isn’t really an accurate way to measure (how many crimes it has prevented). It does give people who frequent these areas a sense of security.”
Amid the ruins of what was once Rule High School on Maryland Avenue is an unassuming metal building. Inside has the feel of a tidy workshop with a row of cell phones recharging, a couple of desks and a handful of people with badges coming and going. On one wall are three large television screens. The screens run 24-7, almost always with at least one person on hand to observe. They look deceptively underwhelming considering the job they do. On each can be viewed the goings-on before 1,500-plus surveillance cameras at schools, maintenance and other structures in the Knox County system.
A click of the laptop computer can call up a camera to monitor a hallway at Halls Elementary or help determine who vandalized the Bearden football field, as happened in October.
The cameras all record around the clock. They all have motion detectors and can all be called up on Maryland Avenue with the push of a couple buttons.
“Camera location is based upon the footprint of the school, the size and dimensions,” explains Mike Walker of Professional Security Consultants and Design, the company that has been installing the cameras in schools for nine years. “We involve the maintenance and security staffs at the schools (when installing a system), and we meet with the principal and talk about areas of concern and the threat-level issues.”
They decide on the number of cameras needed. West High School, which in terms of square footage is the largest school in Knox County, has around 64 cameras.
Walker said the cameras have helped with everything from noncustodial parents snatching their children from school to wayward graffiti artists to school shootings such as the August 2008 one at Central High School. For big problems, Walker says he gets a call.
“Usually if they involve me it’s major,” he said. “It likely means it’s something that could go to court.”
Court is where Walker is called upon to explain the surveillance system to defense attorneys looking to poke legal holes in their operation.
“We have been very successful,” Walker says.
Walker is also heavily involved in much of the security around the University of Tennessee – one large structure in particular.
The Knoxville surveillance community speaks in awe of the system in and around Neyland Stadium. Walker, who dealt with the installation, says only that he worked with the federal Department of Homeland Security on the project and he is not allowed to talk about it.
With 100,000-plus gathered at Neyland on a football Saturday, Homeland Security considered the stadium a potential target for terrorists.
“We don’t discuss anything about the cameras at the stadium or (Thompson-Boling) arena,” said UT’s Lambert. “We stay away from (disclosing) what we see and how many cameras there are. I can say there are a significant number of cameras. Not only can we monitor the stadium, but we are more concerned with the area around the stadium than inside. Our focus is on the outside.”
Lambert says the surveillance stretches a good distance from Neyland’s gates. In fact, a fringe benefit has been funding for monitoring the parking garages around the stadium. The cameras there can be used year-round, not just on football weekends.
The vast number of cameras at the UT campus in general – certainly well over 1,000 – has become a concern. There are so many different systems operating, conducted by so many agencies and programs, that in truth no one – not even the UT police department – knows how many there are.
“We started working earlier this year trying to work with the departments on campus to identify who has cameras,” Lambert said. “All of these schools and colleges are set up into individual departments. If you are a department and you want a camera and you have the bandwidth and everything in place to put one up, you put one up. A lot of places on campus have put these things in on their own. There is no point or centralized control. There are different systems. We have been trying to coordinate where they are and who is in control.”
Lt. Doss of the Public Building Authority stands in a room just inside the entrance to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office in the basement of the City County Building. It’s call the COMM room. Before him are at least 25 television screens. The screens can call up more than 200 cameras in almost all county and city offices as well as parking garages and other areas.
The push of a button gets him a view of Volunteer Landing; another shows him an escalator in the Knoxville Convention Center. One more button and the first floor of the Market Square Garage is on the screen.
“We have cameras in any building we manage and any property we have,” Doss says. “When we started in ’03 we had six monitors. Now they run all the way across (the room) and we even had to extend the office at one time to put in extra monitors.”
The World’s Fair Park cameras can each swivel and zoom in on just about any part of the park. The ninth was recently added on an elevator where mischievous riders jumping up and down had brought on a series of $1,000 visits from the repair company. The new Knoxville Station Transit Center has at least eight cameras and a linked-in public address system that could call out an offender in the act – perhaps someone shaking a vending machine to get his dollar back.
Jayne Burritt of the PBA says the security system has become so popular that various public entities are coming to the authority now requesting that cameras be added. She mentioned that Knoxville greenways and KAT stops have been among the places suggested for additions. Powering the cameras from spots with no electricity is a challenge.
Hospitals are usually extremely competitive in the area of patient care, battling intensely for bragging rights over who has the latest equipment, best health care ratings, etc. In at least one area, they work together.
“One of the things we try to do from time to time is meet with other area hospitals (about security),” says Harry Watson, vice president of facility operations at University of Tennessee Medical Center. “We compare notes – ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’ We went to the Vanderbilt Medical Center to see how they do things.”
Watson says UT Medical Center has dozens of cameras; some record, some only look out on areas. A security center monitors the cameras inside the hospital and on the parking lots.
“I have worked here since the mid-1980s and we had them when I came to work here,” he says. “The big growth has been in infant and pediatrics. There are a lot of concerns in how we manage and protect those infants. In that area, it goes beyond cameras.”
Communication is vital.
“We do a security review,” Watson says. “We bring in our nursing staff and we talk about what their concerns are. We bring them in based on the type of security calls we get from a specific area. Based on their concerns and what we see, then a decision is made on what cameras are needed.”
Detective Aaron Yarnell of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office sees himself as a puzzle master.
“Every case is a puzzle,” he says. “I take each piece and try to formulate the totality of it. Cell phones, videos, witness statements … I put them all together.”
Hubbs says Yarnell, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for 13 years, “thinks outside the box.”
For example, a huge problem with the quick and continued evolution of surveillance cameras is the variation in sophistication that has emerged in the cameras used by businesses and other entities. Some aren’t compatible with any system the Sheriff’s Office has. Hubbs says the investigation of a robbery at one fastfood restaurant was slowed because the restaurant had no way to get the image off its camera.
“People don’t have the same formats (on the surveillance systems), and they don’t know how to use them,” Hubbs said.
Yarnell found a simple but huge workaround for most cases. He uses his BlackBerry to take a snapshot of images off the video screen onsite and e-mails the image directly to a network of law enforcement agencies throughout the area.
“He took a picture off the video after a robbery at the CVS (pharmacy) on Maynardville Highway and within 10 minutes the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office called to say they recognized the guy,” Hubbs said. “We had him in the next day.”
Hubbs said in the not-so-old days the information likely would not even have been distributed until the next day.
“When I came on as a cop in 1979 we didn’t have any of this stuff, but now it’s just like that,” says Hubbs, snapping his fingers.