With a town full of potential terror targets, including the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve and several large chemical plants, law enforcement officials in Freeport, Texas, are turning to the latest video surveillance technology to help protect sensitive areas. The technology has evolved substantially over the past decade to perform impressive tasks, but it is a long way from replacing the human element of security.

Freeport has contracted with Boca Raton, Fla.-based ADT to install a surveillance system that will include audio/visual cameras on the three bridges that access the island on which the city is located. The cameras include license plate recognition readers that identify people of interest based on their license plates. When the network is fully installed, it will include video analytics — software that alerts officers to suspicious activity, such as a vehicle driving on the wrong side of the road — and facial recognition programs. “Our goal is to have an information network where all of this information feeds, where individuals who have a need to know will then have access to those cameras,” says Freeport Police Chief Ty Morrow.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, may have accelerated the evolution of video surveillance technologies somewhat, but the technology was well on its way before then, says Mike Fergus, program manager for the Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Chiefs of Police's (IACP) Technology Center. The newest advances include gait analysis, which can watch large groups for signs of suspicious behavior and notify officers, such as when prisoners in an exercise yard move toward each other to fight. New systems also can find individual faces in large crowds, such as at sporting events, Fergus says.

Surveillance technologies have been “force multipliers” for law enforcement agencies that have lost officers to budget cuts, but that does not mean the technology can replace people, Fergus says. “You still need to have someone at the back end of that, looking at the video and determining if there is a threat and how to use it,” he says. “You can't automate security.”

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