Park Police turn to technology to monitor Fourth of July celebrations

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Monday, July 11, 2011

WASHINGTON—Hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the nation’s capital this Fourth of July to celebrate the country’s independence. This year, as crowds packed the National Mall to watch the fireworks display, law enforcement agencies had extra sets of eyes monitoring the activity.

“As budgets have gotten tighter and tighter over the years, the amount of boots on the ground hasn’t grown at the same rate as these events tend to grow,” said Captain David Mulholland, commander of technology services for the United States Park Police. “Since we’re working with the same amount of officers on the ground, we have to work smarter rather than harder.”

During this year’s celebration, the Park Police demoed an enhanced video surveillance system and a physical security information management system from VidSys to alert its officers of areas that required their attention. Mulholland said his agency is constantly evaluating technology that can act as a force multiplier. “The citizen-to-police ratio is very high and it’s very difficult to monitor large crowds of people,” he said. “The Park Police have been doing this for years, but we always want to improve every capability we have.”

But too much technology and information can be overwhelming, he emphasized. “We put a lot of tools out there and lots of camera and sensors and all that does is bring in a lot of information and it’s very easy to overload my operational commanders with that kind of information,” he said. It’s critical to provide commanders with relevant, actionable intelligence, not just multiple camera views, he said.

Using video analytics and layers of intelligence helps law enforcement identify areas to watch. “The system can help us by saying there’s an indicator in play here that something of that type of scenario is happening so we can focus in on that area,” he said. Having this type of enhanced situational awareness also means commanders can send the right resources and number responders to the area.

The type of analytic features the Park Police tested out during the Fourth of July included a rapid crowd movement feature that alerted police if crowds suddenly began shifting. “People are going to slowly filter into grounds, but at no given time should the masses be rapidly leaving until about 9:30 pm when the fireworks are over,” he said. Also, the police created zones using the video analytics to identify people in areas where they shouldn’t be, like near the fireworks pit, for example.

They used the system to monitor for all types of events including crimes of opportunity, health-related issues, and potential terrorist activity. “Large amount of people in or around these national icons that are symbolic of our country and that creates an environment of risk,” he said.

The Park Police certainly don’t manage these massive crowds on their own. “There’s nothing we can do by ourselves, we have to partner with multiple agencies to get this done,” he said. Therefore, the Park Police must not only collect and disseminate information from the surveillance system to their own personnel, but must also provide that information to various law enforcement agencies.

And the results this year were impressive. “This Fourth was one of the most successful we’ve had in long time,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s just because we had lighter crowds of if it’s because we were in a better position and better prepared.”