Cameras will keep rolling at Pittsburgh Marathon



Police potentially will have hundreds of security cameras -- perched on bridges, light poles and rooftops, among other sites -- to help monitor the May 5 Pittsburgh Marathon and build cases against anyone who might cause trouble at or near the event.

The city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Port Authority, state Department of Transportation, other government agencies, nonprofits and businesses all operate security cameras with views of the racecourse or other streets or venues expected to swell with event-related traffic.

Also, as authorities investigating Monday's Boston Marathon are doing, officials here routinely use private surveillance video to build criminal cases.

Electronic sentinels, unblinking and indefatigable, are an increasingly sophisticated crime-fighting tool. Video cameras often can pan, tilt or zoom; video feeds can be linked; and live streams can be shared with various law-enforcement agencies -- and multiple patrol cars -- simultaneously.

Cameras aren't a panacea, though, a point driven home by the Boston bombing.

"They're much better at solving things, I think, than preventing them," said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, whose organization has operated a camera on East Ohio Street and allowed city police to use it for undercover work.

The city operates more than 100 cameras in various neighborhoods, including some on the marathon route, Marissa Doyle, spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said.

Although the information is a matter of public record, she refused to divulge the locations, citing security reasons.

The city's privacy policy requires that signs be posted near cameras to alert passers-by to the surveillance and that a committee of officials and residents vet every proposed camera location. Ms. Doyle did not respond to questions about those aspects of the policy.

PennDOT operates a network of about 180 cameras, some of them within city limits. Most of the live feeds are publicly accessible at 511pa.com. The locations include parkways, bridges and tunnels.

The Port Authority, which uses the slogan "When it comes to our safety, we can always use an extra pair of eyes," has quite a few of its own -- 260 surveillance cameras deployed across the public transit system.

They are located inside and outside Light Rail Transit stations, at tunnel entrances, along busways, in park-n-ride lots, at bus garages, on the inclines and at the Downtown Service Center. The network continues to grow, with help from federal Homeland Security grants, Port Authority police Chief Stephen McCauley said.

While the federal grants were awarded to aid the fight against terrorism, the authority far more frequently uses the cameras to react quickly to crimes, typically assaults, disorderly conduct, thefts and drug dealing, Chief McCauley said. "Our dispatchers are phenomenal. You start to realize what's normal and what's abnormal."

With government support, Pittsburgh neighborhood groups also have purchased and installed cameras. Neighbors in the Strip, for example, has cameras near the 16th Street Bridge, which is on the marathon route, and in other areas just off the racecourse.

Each agency or group owning cameras has its own rules for their use. PennDOT's cameras don't record, spokesman Jim Struzzi said. Port Authority video is retained for 30 days, agency police Lt. Shawn Hudzinski said.

According to the privacy policy, the city may keep its video for 10 days, unless needed for a specific investigation or "an incident that may subject the city to liability." Councilman Bill Peduto, who wrote the privacy policy, said government must balance law-enforcement needs with encroachment on individual rights.

He said he's never seen any of the signs that are supposed to be posted near the cameras and doesn't believe the mayor ever formed the "city public safety camera review committee," which is supposed to sign off on camera locations. Council President Darlene Harris, who according to the policy is supposed to be on the committee and appoint one other member, said she was not familiar with any work it might have done.

On Wednesday, at least one news outlet reported that surveillance video from a Lord & Taylor department store was leading authorities to a suspect in the Boston bombing. Cameras have helped solve other high-profile crimes, including the 2005 bombing of London's transit system, and they have been effective locally, too.

Video from cameras mounted on the Brightwood Civic Group building helped identify suspects in the 2010 murder of a retired city firefighter. Mrs. Harris had arranged for city money to help purchase the cameras, and she has provided similar help to civic groups in every North Side neighborhood she represents; some groups now have as many as 12 cameras.

After a bicyclist's throat was slashed on the South Side last fall, police released video images of his attacker. A suspect later was arrested, though authorities didn't say whether the video helped.

Port Authority cameras recently provided evidence leading to a homicide charge against an East Pittsburgh woman who struck her boyfriend with a minivan as he tried to board a bus in Larimer. The cameras recorded her hitting the victim, leaving and then returning to the scene a short time later feigning concern that he had been hurt, police said.

In addition, cameras aided a three-month undercover operation by Pittsburgh police called Operation Revolving Door that resulted in 32 arrests of drug dealers operating Downtown, Chief McCauley said. The cameras also saved a life when police communications specialist Greg Sherman saw a drug overdose victim on camera in a park-n-ride lot and dispatched help.

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Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548. Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. First Published April 18, 2013 4:15 AM


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