Could cameras and other tech solve KC’s violent crime epidemic?

Crime Cameras in KC
Illustration by John F. Malta

In January, Barbara Harper, 71, was fatally shot while driving home from her night shift at the post office. Harper’s murder was a case of mistaken identity, as her alleged killer was seeking to avenge an incident at a strip club. The crime would likely be unsolved were it not for surveillance cameras that captured footage of the alleged killer’s license plate.

Kansas City has been in the throes of a violent crime epidemic. New mayor Quinton Lucas was elected after promising to get a handle on the problem, but his first months on the job have been marred by murders, including a random shooting at a First Friday in August.

Could technology help? The city is exploring the idea, announcing in August that police will hand out free Ring doorbell cameras as part of a pilot program. But what if those doorbell cameras were only the start?

“The sky’s the limit when it comes to our advancements in technology,” says Mark Southwell, criminologist at the Kansas City Police Department.

Southwell says that KCPD already uses cameras, license plate readers and gunshot detection systems. But compared to cities like London, where a reported 25 million CCTV cameras watch every corner, we’re lagging. Here’s what we could see in the future.

Better cameras

Cities like Milwaukee are adding new high-end cameras that can surveil up to four blocks. Daniel Lawrence, justice policy researcher at the Urban Institute, optimized Milwaukee’s network from a small collection of low-end cameras to what they have today.

“You couldn’t see anything,” he says of the initial cameras. “It was pixel upon pixel. The new cameras we installed can zoom in 1,200 feet or more. You can see everything in clear detail four blocks away.”

Facial recognition

Although Southwell says facial recognition software is not utilized in KCPD investigations, Lawrence says cities will widely use it in the future.

“For facial recognition to work, the still that they take from the video has to be very high definition and it has to have a lot of good light directly onto the face,” Lawrence says.

Images are run through a facial recognition program to identify suspects.

Crowd control

Crowd control analysis uses cameras to identify when groups of people are gathering, which is useful in areas of known gang activity. If a camera senses a growing crowd in one section of town, it alerts the police to keep an eye on the situation.

Predictive analytics

Chicago toyed with predictive analytics in a project that’s been compared to Minority Report, the Tom Cruise thriller where psychic technology is used to preemptively prevent individuals from committing crimes.

An algorithm compiled map points like previous 911 call locations, liquor stores and gang activity hubs. Analysts identified people in degrees of separation from gang members and guns.

“They had a list of 400 individuals [in Chicago],” Lawrence says. “They would knock on their doors, and say, ‘Our analyses have predicted you as a person who will either be involved in, or a victim of, a shooting next week. We’re not doing anything about this, but we’re letting you know that we’ve identified you as this type of person.’”

This spurred a furious backlash, slowing further development of the technology.

Advances in body cameras

Officer-worn body cameras are testing audio analytics. The cameras pick up on yelling, curse words and even the noise of a gun being removed from its holster.

“If an officer pulls their gun, it connects to the body-worn camera and turns on the camera,” Lawrence says. “If there are shots fired, the camera picks up an acoustic anomaly that sends an alert to the sergeant.”

One company is experimenting with biometric bracelets for officers. The bracelets pick up on heart rate changes, perspiration and movements and turn on the camera or signal the department.

Speaker-enabled cameras

This one gets a lot of pushback from communities, but some cameras are equipped with speakers that operators can talk through.

“It’s a very Big Brother type of thing,” Lawrence jokes. “In America, it’s not used very often, but it’s available to some police departments.”

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