Gigabit Cops

A high speed network is changing and augmenting police work in Chattanooga

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Robert Kyllo/Shutterstock

One day, a group of officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee, got an idea. They were going to go down to the Tennessee riverfront and count ducks. Depending on your interest in ducks, this could be interpreted as a wasteful venture. But for Chattanooga, it was a crucial test of a growing set of tools that are dramatically changing operations and public safety in the city.

In September 2010, Chattanooga launched a citywide fiber optic gigabit network and it’s since been figuring out ways to use this super fast internet connection. The duck counting exercise was a test of the system’s capabilities. Using the high speed network, security cameras and servers, they could instantly analyze a live video feed of ducks swimming up and down the river. If the system could identify ducks, the thinking went, it could also presumably identify people, and alert police when, say, a group of five or more people are congregating in a dark alley or doing other suspicious activities. But that’s just the start.

The city’s chief information officer, Mark Keil, says the gigabit network was installed last year by the local utility company to create a "smart grid," wired and able to better control resources and prevent outages. It has since spread to about 178,000 homes and businesses, as well as city departments.

“Now it’s up to us to figure out what I call ‘the meaning of life,’” Keil says. “Why are we doing this?”

He says it’s different for each department, but the most notable developments to make use of the gigabit network have been in public safety. Sergeant Charlie Brown of the Chattanooga Police Department says the network has dramatically changed the way the department functions.

“When I started this 20 years ago you had a radio and that’s it,” Brown says. “When you really needed real-time information, it wasn’t really real-time.”

Now it is. Each patrol car is equipped to receive high-speed mobile Internet access, allowing maps and crime scene information to be passed between headquarters and officers quickly, and even allowing live video streaming from squad car cameras and security cameras placed throughout the city.

Automation is a major part of this new set of tools. With new sensors installed on streetlights and about 200 security cameras installed throughout the city, streetlights can automatically be turned on when something fishy’s happening. Officers can also turn on lights at will, or set an entire neighborhood’s streetlights flashing to warn of emergencies.

There’s a pedestrian bridge over the river leading to Coolidge Park that’s been a known hotspot for criminal activity. It’s a dark part of the park at night, and an easy place to deliberately stay out of sight. After responding to a number of incidents beneath the bridge over the years, police have tapped into the new high speed network to use security cameras on site to automatically alert officers when suspicious activity is detected. Officers can even tune into the feed from those cameras from within their squad cars, or remotely turn on lights in the area.

The high speed network also allows a fair amount of remote patrolling and policing. For example, the network can essentially transmit the feed from a squad car camera to other police in the area, back to headquarters, or to the chief’s laptop, and eventually, to mobile phones.

“The chief or the supervisor can watch and help determine whether that pursuit should continue or what should happen next,” says Keil.

The police department and city have made arrangements with local schools and business parks to be able to access their security camera networks in the case of an investigation. Keil says this sort of data shareability is augmenting the effectiveness of the police force. Soon, he says, officers could be wearing cameras mounted on their uniforms to capture and share even more.

Keil says one of the most significant upgrades has been the application of a 3D scanning system that can, within minutes, create a 3D model of a crime scene, with details down to a quarter of an inch. Instead of the hours it would usually take to secure and document a crime scene, this scan can be transmitted to investigators over the network just minutes after police first arrive.

With all this technology and capability to monitor parts of the city at any time, privacy concerns are top of mind, say Keil and Brown. They say none of this technology will explicitly be used for monitoring or for catching say, speeding drivers. It’s intended to help prevent crimes and to provide evidence for criminal investigations.

Still, the whole thing can't help but sound rather like “Big Brother.” And as more cities tap into higher speed Internet networks, tools and technologies like these will become even more common.

Image by Robert Kyllo/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.