Sophisticated Surveillance System Helps Medellín Fight Violent Crime
By Dialogo November 26, 2012
MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Officer Gamaliel Jimenez shuffled through videos of the latest crimes: a corner drug deal, a woman absconding with a wallet, a man beating a woman with the butt end of a hunting knife, and two men raining blows down on each other with slabs of wood.
Such events are not unusual for this Colombian metropolis of 3.5 million once synonymous with cocaine cartels and violence.
What’s different is that none went unpunished, thanks to Medellín’s many surveillance cameras. These cameras are a crucial part of the city’s newly integrated security system, which just completed its first year of operation.
“More than 100 people have been arrested from the cameras alone,” said Juan David Betancur, project engineer for the system. Medellín faces a diversity of threats and emergencies: narcotraffickers, armed gangs, petty criminals and reckless speeding motorcyclists, to name just a few.
This wide range of contingencies is one reason Medellín saw the need for a vastly more integrated dispatch system, one in which police officers, soldiers, emergency personnel and even environmental experts sit in the same command room before a wide bank of screens showing different urban hotspots. High above the city, they field and dispatch the tens of thousands of emergency calls that come in each day.
At the heart of this integrated system is technology — Medellín boasts nearly 1,000 surveillance cameras — and coordination between departments.
SIES-M catches regional attention
Called the Sistema Integrado de Emergencias y Seguridad Metropalitano (SIES-M), the the system cost $15 million and opened in October 2011 to much fanfare. It is the only such system in Latin America outside São Paulo, Brazil, analysts say. Visitors from Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, and Ecuador have been arriving all year to get a tour of it.
When creating the system, officials and engineers looked at models in New York, Chicago, Barcelona and Madrid. But Ricardo Salgado Pinzón, director of Empresa de Seguridad Urbana (ESU) — which constructed and now oversees the SIES-M — said the system had to be tailored to the needs of Medellín, whose hillside neighborhoods require military in addition to police presence.
During joint operations, the SIES-M allows police and soldiers to communicate and find one another easily. “We also have the Air Force integrated into the system,” said Salgado. “This allows for coordination and integration between all of them.”
A recent joint operation captured several members of a criminal gang which had been extorting residents, Salgado said. And when protests in the center of Medellín devolved into minor riots this past summer, several people were arrested after being caught by the cameras smashing store windows and painting graffiti.
In the past year, the city’s homicide rate has dropped nearly 30 percent. And in Medellín’s hardscrabble downtown—which has 97 cameras, the most of any district in the city — killings have decreased by 12 percent, Salgado said.
“The cameras are not the only factor,” he said, “but they’re one of the factors.”
Spaceship-like command center towers above Medellín
Salgado said his firm is also researching technology to add to the SIES-M, including software that could enhance face recognition or weapons detection. Police also announced that police would fly small, spider-like helicopter drones over the city, capturing surveillance video.
Earlier this month, Controp, an Israeli company, showed off its latest long-range cameras at a gathering within the command center.
One of the cameras used in aerial drones by Israel’s armed forces had a reach of about 16 miles and used infrared to capture images day or night. Police and officials from surrounding towns tested the camera, toggling the controls and focusing on faraway buildings, people, cows — even roosting birds as evening fell.
The command center, on the 16th floor of a downtown building, is reminiscent of a spaceship with its sweeping, curving white walls and an enormous video wall displaying 16 flat screens, each with a different view of the city’s busiest intersections.
On a recent weeknight, a downpour had cleared the hive of pedestrians who normally dart among the streets trying to avoid the rushing traffic. The city seemed almost tranquil, seen from above and devoid of its sounds.
Before the video wall sat more than a dozen officers constantly monitoring the 858 cameras, 329 of which are owned by the city and 529 are from private institutions but have been incorporated into the system.
“We have a total vision of the city,” said Sgt. David Perez Omar, head of the video surveillance team.
Cameras help police ‘combat and neutralize’ criminals
The cameras are concentrated in crime hotspots. About 25 cameras monitor Comuna 13 (San Javier), a hillside neighborhood once dominated by gangs, while another 30 keep tabs on Comuna 5 (Castilla), where armed groups are constantly extorting bus drivers and store owners, Perez said.
The officers, who can scan more than a dozen cameras at a time, constantly look for hints: people gathering on motorcycles or someone walking alone in a dangerous area. The cameras often catch people concealing weapons from police, or attempting in vain to hide themselves, Perez said.
“This permits us to use technology to combat and neutralize subjects,” he said. “The advantage we have is the camera.”
The omnipresent hush in the surveillance section was in stark contrast to the reception room, where 21 officers fielded all the city’s emergency calls. Sgt. Hernan Dario Durango Jiménez, head of the reception room, said that a single officer fields 600 to 800 calls on a single shift, reaching about 1,000 when it’s busy. Keyboards clattered and chatter echoed throughout the room.
Next to the receptionists, separated by a glass wall, sat the dispatchers wearing headsets. Subintendant Milciades Gilberto Rodríguez Jaraba, who has worked as a dispatcher for seven years, demonstrated how he organized the 15 patrols within his sector, Comuna 16 (Belén), using the computer and radio systems.
“I know my patrols through the timbre of their voices,” he said.
Dispatchers have their hands full
The right side of his computer screen showed open cases; about a dozen were visible. On weekends, the cases can pile up, he said. He recalled a night last December, the month when Colombians enjoy Christmas parties with dancing and drinking in the streets, when he handled more than 1,500.
“I didn’t even have time to drink a small cup of coffee,” he said. “This screen was filled and new cases kept arriving. One can feel impotent at times because you don’t have more resources to send.”
The hardest situation for a dispatcher is when one of his officers is on scene but can’t provide help, Rodríguez said, recalling a case where a girl was badly injured in an accident but all the ambulances were busy. Rodríguez patched in a firefighter who offered first aid advice to the patrolman. Technology notwithstanding, “we are very few [people] for the many cases that this city has,” he said.
Adjacent to the dispatchers at the long banks of white tables — headphones tucked around their heads — are environmental consultants and social workers, including psychologists. Just that night Rodríguez had helped a social worker and psychologist calm down a woman who claimed she had been hit by a car, but actually suffered from mental health problems. Salgado, the director of ESU, said that in December, specialists in women’s issues, such as family and sexual violence, would be added to the staff.
“Before, we were missing many people here. Many people that should have been in this place,” Rodríguez said, pointing to a monitor where codes, highlighted in red, represented calls from different people about the same incident. Within minutes, several officers had arrived and confirmed what the callers had been saying: someone died.
I hope this system is implemented in all capitals... congratulations. and just think, Medellin isn't the capital, but the biz and innovative hub for all Colombia!