Cleaning Up Montebello

Montebello, situated between East Los Angeles and Whittier, faced a graffiti and vandalism problem in its central business strip and surrounding public parks. City officials in the town of 50,000 residents -- whose daytime population swells to 110,000 -- feared the pervasive vandalism was driving away commercial traffic and eroding quality of life.

The city responded with the installation of a video surveillance system combining Internet protocol-based cameras, wireless connectivity and a special audio sensor designed to respond to the hiss from a can of spray paint.

“The city wanted to cut down on graffiti to encourage more commerce,” says Gary Pak, vice president of sales with Axium Technologies Inc., the systems integrator who handled the project.

‘Broken Window' Theory

In addressing graffiti as a quality-of-life issue, Montebello officials applied the “broken window theory” popularized by urban consultant George L. Kelling, who has worked with city governments in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Simply put, the theory states when repairs are neglected on a building with a few broken windows, there is a tendency for vandals to break more. Eventually, according to the theory, they break into the building, causing more damage.

The theory has been applied to litter, subway “turnstile jumpers” who evade fares and graffiti in public places.

“Deal with the small problems, and the big problems will take care of themselves,” Pak says. Clean the graffiti, and it won’t accumulate. Parks and neighborhoods look less run down. Residents and business owners don’t move out.

Still, cleaning didn’t come cheap, especially when taggers were persistent. Graffiti incidents had reached 400 a month, and Montebello was spending $600,000 a year in paint removal, Pak says. When the costs of police overtime and court appearances were factored in, “it was a $1 million a year problem,” he says.The city began to look at more cost-effective ways to address the problem and, ideally, preempt it. That’s when video surveillance came up.

Two surveillance pilots in nearby Los Angeles proved influential and encouraging.

In 2005, the Los Angeles Police Department placed cameras in the Hollywood entertainment district and the Rampart section, including MacArthur Park.Together, the areas saw a 45 percent decline in criminal activity, the biggest single-year drop in LAPD history.

“Citywide surveillance is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 2005, I think there were only 20 locations in the United States,” says Pak. “It’s becoming more commonplace now.”

For Montebello, Axium installed a wireless Ethernet system from MicroTek Electronics of Lake Forest, Calif. The initial installation, in October 2007, featured 16 Pelco Spectra IV cameras; the number grew to 120 cameras when the system was completed last April. The $836,000 project will pay for itself in three to four years, says Pak.

Boulevards And Parks

Along Whittier and Beverly boulevards, Montebello’s two main thoroughfares, the city installed cameras on traffic lights on every block. Three cameras were deployed per access point. Each access point connected to a T1 (1.5 Mb per second) line.

The wireless system uses unlicensed frequencies in the 5.8 MHz band. Radio signals use the 802.11a protocol, commonly known as WiFi. All traffic is IP Ethernet. Additional cameras were placed in eight public parks, as well as an area that was routinely attracting illegal dumping. The wireless cameras have a transmission range of 2,500 feet to two miles, depending on the radio environment, says Jon Epperson, the sales manager with MicroTek who worked on the Montebello project. Optically, the Spectra IVs have 35x zoom capabilities and can capture a clear image one-quarter mile away in low light.

The unique feature of the system is Axium’s TaggerTrap, an audio sensor developed by the integrator that networks into the camera platform. Monitoring and recording conversations alongside video surveillance is illegal. TaggerTrap does neither. Its sensor is attuned to the 40 KHz sound made by an aerosol spray can.When the TaggerTrap registers the sound, it signals the camera to focus on the source (see diagram). TaggerTrap literally catches the violator in the act, providing a timestamped video image that can be used as evidence. It works with a stand-alone network DVR using Axium-developed software, Pak says.

Since its deployment, the video system has resulted in a number of arrests. But more importantly, it has proved a strong deterrent for would-be taggers.

“The decline has been significant,” says Pak, who cites unofficial estimates of a 30 percent decrease in graffiti incidents. Before the cameras were installed, the number of graffiti incidents had been going up every year, he says.

Local Awareness

While the cameras themselves are quite visible, Montebello, for its part, wanted to make sure local awareness was high.

“We wanted people to know they were there,” Pak says. “We’ve gotten a lot of press about it, including articles in Chineseand Spanish-language newspapers.”

Next steps for Montebello, Epperson and Pak say, will be upgrading video systems at the city’s police headquarters and installing a new surveillance system for City Hall. These will come under a separate contract. Plans call for introducing BlackBerrys and other handheld devices, adapted for public safety purposes, for use with technologies like voice over IP.These will replace the traditional analog twoway radios the police department uses now, Pak says.

As for the MicroTek equipment, Pak says the performance of the wireless system has been “phenomenal.” Pak notes that radio engineering requires a degree of expertise, which he says Axium brought to the project. Nonetheless, the system, set up in point-to-point configuration, had no engineering flaws.

“We could do a camera installation in less than a day,” he says. There were more problems with other aspects, including long waits for T1 lines. In addition, the Pelco Spectra IV SE cameras, among the company’s workhorse models, were often on back order.

MicroTek was founded in 1992 and specializes in wireless Ethernet technology, video, voice and data access control. It has supplied wireless surveillance installations to diverse customers, including the city of Baltimore, the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, Calif. and the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

A chief advantage of radio is its cost over laying cable.

“There’s the cost benefit of not having to trench. You don’t have to tear up streets,” says MicroTek’s Epperson. “But you can put the cameras where you need to put the cameras.” In addition, Epperson says, the plug-and-play simplicity of 802.11 and IP make the technology easy to work with once it’s online.

Prospective customers, from large cities to homeowners’ associations, are “more and more interested in video surveillance,” Epperson says.“Wireless is becoming more accepted as a means of transmission.

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