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March 14, 2011

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CCTV revamp bolsters custody suite operation for West Midlands Police

When the actions and/or integrity of police officers are called into question, it’s obviously essential that a full investigation is conducted.

In such circumstances, there’s arguably no better form of evidence than comprehensive video and audio recordings to either refute or confirm events, suspicions or allegations.

Of course, the protection of people in custody, as well as that of police service staff, is of the utmost importance.

As is the case with all forms of evidence, it’s the intricate detail that becomes decisive. That’s one of the reasons why the West Midlands Police recently turned to Visimetrics when the time came for the force to implement a network-based custodial CCTV system linking its 23 police stations with custody blocks at headquarters.

West Midlands Police: setting the scene

West Midlands Police is the UK’s second largest police force after the Metropolitan Police Service. The force serves a population of 2.6 million people and covers an area of 348 square miles.

The force is divided into ten police areas serving the major centres of Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton as well as the districts of Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull and Walsall.

Following lessons learned from past experience, coupled with a dissatisfaction of the myriad existing systems in use, back in 2004 West Midlands Police established a Project Board to evaluate and recommend an appropriate CCTV system for use within all custodial suites throughout the force.

The Project Board also sought to consult with relevant bodies both within and outside of the force – such as the Professional Standards Department (PSD) and Anti-Corruption units, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and both ACPO and the Home Office – with regards to meeting the requirements of safer detention policies.

Existing systems had been installed on an ad hoc basis at a local level without a clear corporate policy or much thought to the standardisation of equipment. This arrangement produced disappointing results when the spotlight of investigation fell upon CCTV evidence.

As part of an overall approach to improving the detention and handling of people held in police custody, West Midlands Police duly set about improving and standardising CCTV across the force.

Intensive evaluation and testing

From the outset, the force was adamant that only the highest image and audio quality would be acceptable.

Many manufacturers’ solutions were considered before the search was narrowed down to two prominent suppliers of custodial CCTV systems, namely Visimetrics and Vicon.

West Midlands Police then took the unusual step of installing a complete recording system from each manufacturer at two separate custody suites to evaluate system performance in their entirety (including system management and network performance) directly from force headquarters.

The intensive evaluation lasted almost nine months, affording users and experts alike throughout the force the opportunity to compare both systems.

On culmination of the system evaluations, the Project Board recommended the force implement Visimetrics’ recording solutions in all custody suites.

Colin Holder, CCTV project manager for West Midlands Police, explained some of the key considerations used to compare the two systems.

“Custody CCTV images often form part of murder investigations. As the footage can be used by expert witnesses in facial mapping, for example, it’s essential that the recorded images are of the highest quality. Without high quality images we lose the ability of using this invaluable process.”

Holder added: “Image quality was by far the most decisive consideration we had to make, closely followed by audio quality, lip synchronisation and user management of the recordings. Our other main criteria were demonstrable synchronisation between video and audio. Visimetrics’ solution held a clear advantage in delivering these key requirements.”

An additional key benefit that Visimetrics’ solution offered was the ability to download footage in a very straightforward manner onto DVD.

“This is both in a standard PC format and, very importantly for us, in a ‘playable’ format for use in standard DVD machines,” explained Holder. “Given that the entire criminal justice system has moved over to this standard, it has massively streamlined the process of getting evidence into the hands of our ‘customers’.”

Project implementation: what happened next?

With the evaluation complete and a budget allocation of GB pound 2.5 million secured, West Midlands Police began installation work for the new surveillance system early in 2009.

The aim was to complete two custody suites per month. For operational reasons, suites that were geographically separated were chosen for installation at the same time.

“I’m happy to say that we pretty much managed to adhere to this plan,” suggested Holder, “despite changes caused by the force undergoing a major restructuring during this time. This did require us to modify the scope of the project somewhat from that which was originally planned.”

West Midlands Police custody suites are housed in a variety of building types, from Victorian-era structures through to modern complexes. Regardless of building type or size, a common system design was established aimed at minimising the potential for surveillance ‘blind spots’ within each block.

The number of cameras installed at each site is therefore directly related to the size and construction of the custody block.

CCTV coverage throughout all custody blocks is as close to 100% efficient as is practical. The overriding principle is that PICs (or Persons in Custody) are recorded from the moment they arrive outside of the block, usually a dedicated van dock, and from then on at every point as they are processed through the block and ultimately incarcerated within a holding cell.

Holder continued: “The key areas for us are around the charge desks, where regardless of site we have devised a three-camera layout giving full coverage of both sides of the desk, along with one camera to overview the desk itself so that property transactions are fully recorded. Other areas such as rooms housing intoximeter and fingerprint areas are covered in a similar fashion.”

Static cameras have been installed for the simple reason that the force didn’t want to use custody staff as CCTV operators, as this could potentially distract them from their main duties.

West Midlands Police realised that, with so many sites and so many staff involved, it would be crucial to standardise the operation of the solution, in turn keeping it simple and straightforward to use.

Force-wide networked surveillance system

Tim Wood, the business development director at Visimetrics, has been involved with the project since its inception.

“The West Midlands Police surveillance solution is effectively one very large integrated recording system,” he said. “There are upwards of 1,000 cameras operating across the force’s Wide Area Network.”

That network is a typical WAN operating mixed bandwidths throughout, with the average being 100 Mbps. Use of the network not only provides system access to authorised users from any force location, but also simplifies the ongoing monitoring of the entire system.

Using standard network management protocols such as SNMP, key performance and status information concerning the encoders and RAID storage systems is automatically sent over the network and relayed through the force’s servers to manufacturer and service provider in real-time.

Wood stated: “This capability allows engineers to react immediately to any issues in a pro-active manner, meaning that any problems are prevented from escalating. Without doubt, this will assist in maximising the long term operation of the system.”

The chosen system is effectively a distributed network of encoders and RAID storage devices located through the 23 custody suites.

Ensuring on demand access to all recordings at all times was essential and called for a robust, redundant storage configuration. The installed system uses RAID Level 6 with ‘hot spare’ configuration, assuring the force of maximum redundancy should any single storage element fail.

The force’s requirement is for all recordings to be stored for 90 days. Total storage adds up to 1,400 Tb (1.4 Petabytes). Future expansion can be easily accommodated as the system is fully modular in blocks of four or eight channels.

Each custody suite houses the CCTV and audio equipment within dedicated air conditioned equipment rooms (indeed, in many cases suitable rooms were specially adapted for the purpose).

As with any hard disk-based recording system, temperature is the most likely source of problems. Therefore, the air conditioned environment maintains a strict operating range, with temperature readings linked into the force’s building management systems.

In addition, Visimetrics provides health monitoring software that allows all parties involved (West Midlands Police, the service provider and Visimetrics) remote monitoring not only of the temperature, but all aspects of the recording system.

Operational use of the system

The CCTV system is employed by a host of different users for various purposes. In addition to central users, local access is available to the relevant recordings for review and export.

Use of the system on a local basis has been highly beneficial in the resolution of issues, some of them minor (but which in the past had proven very time-consuming for the officers involved).

Colin Holder explained: “I can cite numerous examples where the system has already proven its worth. For instance, in terms of increased detection of persons attempting to drop drugs prior to searches.”

It has also been useful in terms of capturing evidence of the demeanour of individuals while being charged or during ‘Intox’ procedures etc, which can be very relevant later on when the case reaches court.

Holder continued: “Other examples of where the system is useful would incoude dealing with returned property disputes, which the clarity of the images and associated audio allow us to resolve very quickly. In the past, such situations could escalate into a significant investigation in their own right.”

Apparently, the system has also allowed for more efficient working practices, such as when officers are carrying out CCTV observations of persons at risk.

“We’ve established monitoring locations within each block that allow a single officer to view up to four cells simultaneously,” outlined Holder. “So overall, the system is providing considerably beneficial to the force in terms of time and cost savings. From the local users resolving issues quickly and effectively, to the central users accessing directly from force headquarters in Birmingham, allowing officers to carry out their duties without having to leave the confines of their own office.”

Moving the entire force over to a new way of working

Visimetrics has worked extremely closely with West Midlands Police to make sure the transition to the new surveillance system was a successful and seamless process.

The scale of the system and the nature of its application means that more than 200 users have received training, ensuring knowledge is spread over all shift patterns at all times.

The majority of users are effectively viewing and exporting small periods of recordings on a local basis. More intensive users of the system would typically be video librarians covering a number of sites. They’re responsible for the collection and processing of large amounts of recordings.

Central users, such as the members of Professional Standards and Anti-Corruption Departments, use the system intensively, reviewing and exporting recordings for the purposes of dealing with investigations and allegations made.

Tim Wood explained: “Regardless of whether they are local or advanced users, everyone uses the same user interface with the same level of operational functionality. Advanced users such as the video librarians have more of an interest in using features such as playlist creation, allowing them to piece together an event in a chronological order and then export that playlist to DVD.”

This process provides a significant saving on time, particularly when events are exported to ‘movie’ DVD in a playlist format. Viewers of the DVD simply watch the event unfold in the order created by the investigating officer.

One specific feature developed to meet the operational needs of West Midlands Police is an interactive, multi-level mapping facility which provides ‘drag and drop’ of cameras from maps to monitor displays.

Many system users aren’t knowledgeable of the specific layout of each suite, and having the mapping functionality provides a level of ‘situation awareness’ relating to camera views. This is particularly helpful during incident investigations.

“It’s my impression that the force is very happy with this bespoke development,” said Tim Wood. “We also had a number of requests for minor amendments to the user interface, adding some functionality considered useful to the force’s specific application. These requests were incorporated within a matter of days.”

True business partner

As far as Colin Holder’s concerned, Visimetrics has been a true business partner “delivering excellent support” throughout the project.

“They have been constantly on hand, helping us to meet our requirements and dealing with issues raised during the project,” he said.

“The training has gone very smoothly, and Visimetrics has been very responsive to the need for increasing the education programme to add more users than originally envisaged due to the force restructuring.”

A crucial aspect has been the remote monitoring of ‘system health’ in managing the solution, given the sheer scale of equipment located throughout the force.

“We simply couldn’t physically monitor this on a day-to-day basis,” said Holder. The real test of any business relationship is the reaction when things don’t go to plan, and I can safely say that Visimetrics’ response has always been nothing short of excellent.”

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