Cameras let police peer down high school halls

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 02/17/03: Reid J. Epstein

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Attention, students of Nicolet High School: Big Brother could be watching you. Look for him sitting in a Ford Expedition parked within a half-mile of campus.

In what officials believe to be the first program of its kind in Wisconsin, Glendale and Brown Deer police have the capability of sitting in police cruisers and watching live video feeds from security cameras inside their respective high schools.

The system is designed, its architect says, to prevent massacres like the one that made Columbine High School a household name. But at these two north suburban schools, the system has seen more benign successes, in the hands not of police but of school officials.

"We were able to catch people stealing french fries from our cafeteria," said Brian Reiels, Nicolet's security director.

And on a recent afternoon, Reiels set the computer in his office to replay footage of two students scuffling in a Nicolet hallway. One of the students pushed the other through a glass trophy case. Using the digital video, Reiels was able to identify both students.

After Reiels showed the video to the students involved in the fracas, they paid the school for the damage.

"Had we not had that technology, we never would have found out what happened," Reiels said. "Two or three times a month, we have an incident where this helps us."

The system, called IVACS Digital City program, is manufactured by Closed Circuit Technology of Naperville, Ill. Nicolet and Brown Deer are the first two high schools it has outfitted, but Steve Cohn, the company's vice president, said schools in Naperville and Glen Ellyn, Ill., will install similar systems soon.

"Before, police had no clue" what was going on inside a school, Cohn said. "There was no way to tell what was happening inside. With our product, they can zoom in and tell what kind of weapons are there and get instant real-time information. Before, they were just guessing."

At Nicolet, administrators did not announce the system to its students, but Reiels said, "There's enough children that have been caught on video that they know about it. Word gets out."

A federal grant picked up the cost - $5,500 for the technology inside the schools and $13,000 per squad car - and Nicolet and Brown Deer installed the system over the summer. The technology digitized the schools' existing analog cameras and allows the signals to be beamed from the roof of the schools to squad cars up to a half-mile away.

From the squad cars, officers can control what they see through the cameras as if they were holding them. At Nicolet, officers can switch to any of 16 cameras, zoom in or out, and replay any footage up to 3 weeks old. And while Reiels and other school officials use the technology to find out who was involved in a fight or stole electronic equipment, the police are not finding themselves glued to laptop screens, monitoring the hallways.

"Generally, it's used on an emergency call," said Glendale police Capt. Larry Rittberg. "They may have used it on alarms once or twice, but nobody has reported anything significant yet."

One of the first communities to implement similar technology, Tewksbury, Mass., installed police video surveillance of its high school in 2000. At Tewksbury Memorial High School, 40 cameras monitor the hallways, common areas and exterior of the campus. But unlike at Nicolet, monitors do not watch the cameras inside Tewksbury High during a regular school day.

"Cameras by policy are only allowed to display the exterior of school when it is in session," said Tewksbury Police Chief John Mackey. "We put it in for a catastrophic situation which we hope is never going to happen."
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