By Mary Barr Mann (reprinted from Village Green article April 17, 2021)
The South Orange Police Department is in the process of replacing public security cameras throughout the Village — mostly in commercial areas and busy intersections — and adding more, a process that will take several years as 8-12 cameras are replaced or installed each year. The plans calls for 50-70 cameras, manufactured by Verkada, installed over five years.
South Orange has had security cameras for decades. However, the new devices are more advanced, with color imaging, high definition resolution and infrared night vision. Instead of being hardwired to the police station, they connect wirelessly to Verkada’s cloud, which stores the data for 30 days until it is rewritten (according to SOPD, incidents that are flagged for investigation or as evidence are isolated and can be saved or stored longer).
South Orange resident Ben Vitale became aware of the plan for new cameras through a South Orange municipal budget hearing last December and has been researching Verkada cameras and facial recognition software. Vitale recently raised concerns with the Community Police Collaborative, which sent the following statement in response to a request by Village Green:
“The CPC learned in March that resolutions approving the purchase and installation of new, high definition, cloud-based surveillance cameras were passed last year, and that the cameras would be installed downtown to replace existing cameras. CPC members reviewed those resolutions to learn more about the plan, and met with SOPD to understand its goals for the cameras, the deployment plan, the type of cameras in use, and who would have access to the live and taped feed. Residents with concerns about the cameras also contacted us directly, and spoke at our April meeting. We are continuing to work with the public, and our Village government and SOPD partners to understand the scope of the project and the privacy concerns it raises. We will make recommendations when we have completed that work.”
Captain Stephen Dolinac, who becomes Acting Chief on May 1 with the retirement of Chief Kyle Kroll, and Sgt. Richard Lombardi say that the cameras are not “surveillance” in that footage is not being actively monitored in real time. Rather, they say, the cameras are used for when an incident is reported; police then call up the location and time and review footage. A limited number of police department members and township employees have access to the data. Access and use of the footage is limited by police department policy.
In a followup email, Dolinac further addressed questions about facial recognition:
“As noted in the CPC meeting several times, by both Lt. [Adrian] Acevedo and Sgt. Lombardi, our Verkada camera system utilizes facial detection. For reference and clarification, the widely accepted definition of “Facial Recognition” has three components: Face Detection, Face/Image Analysis and Comparison to a database. I’ve included a link to Kapersky’s website where they have it broken down as a 4 step process (essential they’ve broken step 2 “Analysis” into two separate steps to further clarify the process). I’ve done this to illustrate that our system is only employing the first step in the facial recognition process. Our system does not have the capabilities to analyze images and is not connected to any database(s). When searching for a specific face investigators must search each camera separately. When a suspect in an incident is identified by investigators they must conduct individual searches on each camera to determine the actions and circumstances surrounding the incident. This follows the same exact procedure utilized by SOPD in the past, the only change being that the facial detection tool has the ability to greatly reduce the man hours involved in reviewing video.
“As of this writing the Township does not have 70 cameras at its disposal, we have 13 of which 11 have the ability to conduct facial detection. Of those 11 cameras the majority are mounted in areas where traffic accidents are the prime concern, thus they are mounted at a height that is ineffective at capturing most faces (this is a byproduct of the camera resolution). Township Administration has advised the PD that funds may be available this year to expand the system but that has not been voted on or approved by the Board. My understanding is that there is a proposed allocation in this year’s Capital Budget for cameras which is pending review and a vote by the Board in the coming weeks.”
Dolinac also responded a concern raised by Vitale regarding use of the FBI “aka NY/NJ HIDTA” system: “We have used this tool for over a decade and only have a small group of authorized users (HIDTA limits access). This system pulls from NY and NJ mugshots verified with fingerprints. Our investigators have never and will never use this system as the sole means for identifying a suspect, it is simply a tool available to our investigators.”
For his part, Vitale says he is not necessarily calling for a face recognition ban: “Oversight is my more-moderate request. This oversight should be pro-active consent, not reactive discussions like we’re having now.”
In a phone interview, Dolinac said that, besides being guided by policy, the police department and township are limited by “what is practical, applicable and financially viable.” Dolinac said, “The cameras are for public safety” — for traffic incidents and “to promote successful investigation, arrests and conviction in the event of crime.”
“If someone is victimized, it helps us with the investigative process,” said Dolinac. “It helps courts and juries.”
Lombardi notes that the existing cameras need to be replaced. “They were cutting edge 10 years ago,” but are no longer. “We have to update,” he said, noting that a person would still not be using a 2011-era laptop today.
Meanwhile, the Township and PD are still working to purchase officer bodycams, which are mandated by the state for all officers by June 1 (a grant from several years ago was used to purchase dashcams for vehicles). Dolinac says that the town is preparing its reimbursement grant application to the state, due April 30.