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All eyes are on Watchung surveillance program

Courier News | June 11, 2007

WATCHUNG -- If you've driven by the Watchung Police Department in the past year, chances are your license plate has been captured by a video camera.

And if you've walked in the department's lobby or the municipal court, your image has been taken for high-tech face recognition software.

Many Central Jersey towns have varying forms of surveillance camera equipment as part of their public-safety programs.

But Watchung has taken one additional high-tech leap, by participating in an experimental, year-long program that incorporates license-plate and face-recognition software in its digital video camera systems.

The borough's police chief and the private company that is running the program hope that the department will be a model for video surveillance in the state. In fact,Wat-chung's camera system, with live video feed, will be featured during the Police Security Expo June 19 and 20 in Atlantic City.

"These are tools to allow the police to be more effective," said Rob Merchant, president of MTS Intelligent Surveillance Solutions, the Howell-based company which installed the software in Watchung for free when he converted the department's video-tape based surveillance system to digital.

Only a few other New Jersey towns have the same type of technology, Merchant said. They include the Deal, Bradley Beach, Sea Isle City and Maplewood police departments.

But apparently, no other Central Jersey towns have tried incorporating this advanced technology into their public-safety arsenal, according to law-enforcement officials.

How it works

The license-plate recognition program allows the department to download a database of stolen vehicles' registration numbers. The computer system alerts dispatchers if a matching license plate passes the cameras, which are installed at the Somerset Street department, the Watchung Municipal Building and the Watchung Square Mall on Route 22. If the camera spots a possible stolen vehicle at the mall's east entrance, a recorded voice comes over the system saying, "Vehicle match at mall entrance east."

"This is like a police officer sitting on the side of a road checking plates," police Chief John Frosoni said. "It's an extra set of eyes."

The cameras in the police department's lobby and the municipal court entrance are wired with face-recognition software, capturing images of people coming and going from the building, Frosoni said. After the system captures an image, it is designed to match it with the facial features of mug shots from people wanted on warrants, and to alert the dispatch center that someone who looked like a wanted person had entered the surveillance area.

"This is a tap on the shoulder to say, 'You might want to check that out' and that's very useful," Merchant said.

Watchung is MTS Intelligent Surveillance Solutions' beta site for the software system, Merchant said. He's spent the past year adjusting algorithms, to get the camera's capture of license plate numbers just right. He and Frosoni said they are still perfecting the face-recognition software.

If the department had to pay for the software, it would cost $1,000 to $3,000 per camera, Merchant said.

The borough already has 22 cameras; most were installed when police headquarters was built in 1999. There are three at the Watchung Square Mall entrances. (Frosoni said the police department has access to the cameras, but the shopping center doesn't have access to the license plate recognition system.)

How it helps

Merchant said the technology could be helpful, if, for example, there was a robbery at the Watchung Square Mall and a witness could only remember part of the license plate number of an escape car. Police could sort through the list of vehicles which passed through the parking lot, trying to find a match.

Plus, Merchant said, video is a tremendous piece of evidence.

The cameras in the municipal hall will record if they detect motion, Frosoni said. That's a security tool he would have liked to have during the two unsolved arsons at the municipal building in the mid-1990s.

Frosoni, who will retire at the end of June, said, about a decade ago, Watchung was the first municipal department in Somerset County to install video cameras in all of its patrol cars.

Surveillance cameras monitored by police aren't new. Many police patrol cars are have video cameras. The state requires investigators to video interviews with people charged with third-degree or higher crimes, Frosoni said.

But what Watchung is doing is apparently unique in Central Jersey.

Somerset County Prosecutor Wayne Forrest believes the Watchung Police Department is the first police force in Somerset County to use this license and face recognition technology. And Union County Prosecutor's Office spokeswoman Eileen Walsh said she is not aware of any municipalities within her jurisdiction using software like Watchung's.

In Maplewood, Merchant said the cameras are placed in key intersections, with a link back to police headquarters. He said the cameras have collected information in about 10 crimes over the past four months, including a robbery at a convenience store.

"Agencies like Watchung and us are ahead of the curve, trying to be proactive rather than reactive with our crime-prevention efforts," Maplewood Police Sgt. Dean Naddeo said.

Public reaction

Jennifer Lobozzo, who lives in Watchung and drives by the camera locations in the borough daily, said, "I don't think it's a terrible thing at all. With four young children, I'm all for safety."

Lobozzo was a little concerned about how effective the cameras would be, particularly if a someone driving the stolen car knew the location of the cameras around the borough.

Gerald Staffin, who also lives in Watchung, applauded an extensive video-monitoring system in London. While London and Watchung don't share much in common, Staffin liked the ideas of cameras also watching over his hometown.

"I don't think it's an invasion of privacy and if it cuts down on crime, that's wonderful," Staffin said.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union Web site, www.aclu.org, the organization doesn't object to cameras "at specific, high-profile public places that are potential terrorist targets."

However, according to the Web site, "the impulse to blanket our public spaces and streets with video surveillance is a bad idea. ... Its benefits -- preventing at most a few street crimes, and probably none -- are disproportionately small."

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