New Virginia Beach police cameras at Oceanfront will see body heat, pick out colors

The number of surveillance cameras at the Oceanfront will more than quadruple as part of a multi-year, $7.5 million project that is now underway.

But while the increase in the number of cameras is significant — there will be 85, up from 19 — the system’s new capabilities may be even more impressive.

The cameras will be able to see thermal imagery, so they could be turned toward the ocean when there is a person or boat in distress and look for people in the water at night. They will also allow the viewer to isolate images by color, so recorded video can be played back showing only people with certain clothing descriptions. That could help police find a suspect or a lost child on a crowded beach.

Lt. Bob Christman of the Virginia Beach Police Department’s support division, discussed some of the features and gave an update on the camera project last week for the city’s Human Rights Commission.

Christman gave an example of a missing child scenario. A camera operator looking for a child in a yellow shirt and red bathing suit who was last seen walking north on the beach could tell the system to play back video during a certain time and only show people who matched clothes of that description, and who were traveling in that direction.

The camera system overhaul will initially replace and update the police department’s 19 existing cameras and add six more by July. That is part of the first phase of the $7.5 million project, which will eventually lead to 85 cameras at the Oeanfront from the Boardwalk to Birdneck Road.

“We see the cameras as a force multiplier, Christman said. “I don’t have and I know the chief does not have 85 spare officers someplace that we can stick out in various locations on the Oceanfront.”

Chrsistman said the cameras will be “overt” and are not intended for covert surveillance.

“We want folks to know the cameras are out there and be aware of them,” he said.

The plan is to install the cameras along the boardwalk, from Rudee Inlet to 40th street, between the bike paths and the hotels, at even numbered streets. On Atlantic Avenue, cameras will be put in at same area but at odd numbered intersections to provide overlapping coverage, Christman said.

The cameras will go on top of poles that are about 25 feet tall and give the operator the ability to rotate them 360 degrees. Their coverage will extend to areas on other busy streets and stretch all the way to Birdneck Road.

The police department’s new video management system, Genetec, is the same one used in the city’s schools. That will let the police tie into the schools’ cameras and during emergencies — a big advantage during a crisis situation, Christman said.

“We would be able to pull the cameras at that school to provide real-time data to the officers that are handling that incident,” he said.

Christman said the police are still working on policies for exactly how they would gain access to the schools’ camera system.

“We don’t have the time, the personnel or the interest at looking at what’s going in the schools and hallways on any given day, but if there’s a critical incident, that’s when we do need to know what’s going on there,” he said.

Human Rights Commissioner Michael Berlucchi asked how the police are addressing possible constitutional issues with the cameras, such as a citizen’s right to privacy.

Christman said they have policies to ensure they don’t infringe on a person’s rights.

Earlier, Christman had given the example of how a camera might be used to find someone who was throwing things from a hotel balcony.

“While we would never look at the hotels and the balconies during routine operation, it is advantageous to us if we get a call for one of those situations, a camera-operator can turn around and start providing information to the responding officer based on what they’re seeing,” Christman said.

Unless a situation like that is reported, the camera operators would not be allowed to turn their lense toward the hotel, he said.

The first phase of the camera expansion project also will give police access to more than 50 transportation cameras throughout the city. Christman said that could help them identify vehicles in an investigation and provide a heads up on traffic patterns.

The control center for the cameras, at the second precinct, is also being renovated to give camera operators a larger working space and add a conference room to accommodate more people during a crisis.

Christman said a big focus of the department is to make residents and visitors at the Oceanfront “feel much more welcome, much more secure down there.”

The Human Resources Commission passed a unanimous motion of support for the project.

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