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Photo by Chris Gallevo

Eyes on Minneapolis

The annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, draws large crowds every year, consistently numbering in the tens of thousands. So when a disruptive group of teenagers caused problems at last year’s event, the police department was glad to have critical video evidence to help apprehend the suspects.

“We were able to reach out to a number of businesses and get information that led us to help identify some of the individuals that were causing problems in the downtown area,” says Commander Scott Gerlicher of the Minneapolis Police Department. 

What started as rabble rousing, intentionally blocking traffic, and getting into fights eventually turned into an all-out brawl. Two people were injured and six arrests were made. 

With the help of Securonet’s Virtual Safety Network, a cloud-based tool that allows law enforcement to communicate with the business community, police were able to identify which cameras would likely show footage of the brawl and contact the owners of those devices. They ultimately leveraged resources from 32 cameras. 

“Securonet has allowed us to enhance some of that collaboration with the business community that was already going on,” Gerlicher says. “We have many security cameras and police public safety cameras in downtown Minneapolis and throughout other areas of our city, but what we haven’t been able to do is tap into all those privately held cameras.” 

While the relationship between the business community and law enforcement in Minneapolis is long-established, the initiative for a public safety camera network began with the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in 2014, hosted at Target Field. 

Securonet’s founder, Justin Williams, had a working relationship with both the police department and the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District (MDID) and approached both entities about the Virtual Safety Network when security plans for the game were underway. 

“We looked at models, and looked at what other cities were doing” as far as camera programs, says Shane Zahn, director of safety initiatives with MDID. “There weren’t a lot of other cities doing this, so that’s when we partnered with Securonet to see if they could custom build us something here that we were looking for.” 

Leading up to the game, MDID created a website that allowed business users to register their cameras on Securonet. In addition to the police’s monitoring station, MDID has a fusion center located within the city’s First Precinct where a team of police and private security monitor the cameras. 

After the All-Star game, the law enforcement community wanted to expand the camera initiative throughout the rest of the city. In early 2015, the city began opening up the registration to businesses located outside the downtown area.

Securonet is hosted on a Web-based portal where businesses can register cameras that may capture incidents of interest to law enforcement. These cameras usually face public areas, or are mounted on building exteriors. 

Authorized police officers can log in to the portal and view these cameras on a map to see which devices may be related to what they’re investigating. 

“We have a team of intelligence analysts at a central location, and there’s about 15 of us up here that have access to the Securonet portal,” notes Gerlicher, referring to the Minneapolis Police Department’s Strategic Information Center. There are additional analysts at the MDID fusion center. If they so choose, businesses can also publish the live feed of certain cameras on the portal so law enforcement has a real-time view. 

The cameras are geo-located on a live map view of existing cameras. A security official or law enforcement officer then simply types in an address, and all the cameras on the site surrounding the area of interest appear. 

Law enforcement can then send a message over the portal that lets the camera owner know exactly when the incident occurred and what it’s looking for. As of mid-2015, there were approximately 400 cameras registered to the system. 

Police or operators can also send out a mass message to several affected camera owners at once. 

“We can query the people who have signed up through Securonet,” Gerlicher explains, “and send out a mass notification saying, ‘We had this incident take place…and the suspect was seen wearing a red top and black jeans, at this date and time. Let us know if you have anything on video.’” 

The business can reply affirming that a suspect does, in fact, appear on the video, or that the suspect does not. In the past, law enforcement would have someone go knock on the door of that company to inquire about the footage, a time-consuming process that kept police tied up. 

Investigators then go to the business and pick up a digital copy of the footage. “Once businesses turn it over to us, they understand it will be part of the case file,” he says. 

Businesses appreciate the fact that it’s an e-mail-based tool, notes Zahn, and that the communication with law enforcement is in a familiar, unobtrusive format. “What the businesses are saying is, one, it’s easy to register; and two, they are getting more specific communications than just a general e-mail blast.” 

He adds that the city tries to limit its communication with business owners on issues unrelated to investigations to about once a week, so that they aren’t oversaturated with e-mails. The city also strives to keep communications to a simple format that is consistent throughout each message. 

“You get familiar with the requesters and vice-versa,” Zahn says. “You build a relationship—this virtual relationship—through the tool.” 

Evidence obtained via Securonet often helps the First Precinct solve property crimes, Gerlicher adds, and the technology also helps rule out any frivolous or erroneous leads in an investigation. “If we don’t see the suspect in that footage, we can determine, ‘well he must not have gone that way.’” 

And the business community has kept up its end of the bargain. Gerlicher says law enforcement has experienced a 100 percent response rate of camera owners replying when there is an inquiry. 

Securonet is developing another application called Helplink (911), which will allow businesses to turn on access to cameras both outside and inside a building during an emergency. Minneapolis is currently testing the technology, and Gerlicher says the city hopes to roll it out soon. 

“That would give incredible situational awareness to those officers responding or a SWAT team so they can see exactly what’s happening and they are not going into that building blind,” notes Gerlicher.