Security cameras in Pittsburgh's South Side have helped lower the area's crime rate by 37 percent in the last year, according to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.
Zappala met with South Side business owners at the City Theatre on Wednesday, to give a progress report on the area's surveillance program and brainstorm additional ideas to bolster public safety.
In September, officials began installing 36 high-definition security cameras along a swath of East Carson Street between 10th and 19th streets. It's part of a countywide effort that involves over 450 cameras and counting. The program is funded through drug money seized by law enforcement and by grants.
Both business owners and the police have access to camera feeds. The South Side cams are equipped with license plate recognition software, which has catalogued millions of vehicles since installation. The picture quality and zooming capabilities rival those of personal cameras, capturing a level of detail on suspected criminals that can identify them faster than ever before.
"You've got to be an idiot if you think you're going to get away with hurting somebody with that type of technology in play," Zappala said. "If you come down here looking for trouble, you're going to find it."
Zappala showed business owners a 20-minute video recorded in May from a series of security cameras along East Carson. In it, a car slowly follows three female pedestrians as they leave a bar, buy pizza and eventually part ways. The car slips in and out of parallel parking spots-- often with its headlights off-- as the driver maintains a visual on the women.
Zappala said the video, which captured the face and body of the driver as he entered his vehicle, helped apprehend the suspect.
"This is the type of evidence that I could send my son into court, and he could take care of this case," Zappala said. "And he's 18."
Zappala also showed a video of the widely-publicized hit-and-run outside an East Carson bar in April. A motorcyclist collides with a pedestrian. When his bike flips and skids to a stop, the driver hops right back on, attempting to flee the scene. Police officers pursue on foot, kicking the motorcycle back to the ground before the driver can accelerate.
It's these crimes, as well as more minor incidents, that South Side security cameras have helped abate and prosecute in recent months.
"This is the best type of evidence," Zappala said. "Juries don't want you to speak to them, lecture them, whatever. They'd rather see it, they'd rather hear it if they can."
Allegheny County's network of cameras, Zappala added, traced the whereabouts of a Carrick murder suspect last week, who was allegedly driving his victim's car, through license plate recognition.
The security cameras are also being piloted outside of McKeesport High School as a virtual check-in for vehicles. The software automatically separates visitors who have been to the school before (like parents, students and employees) from unknown vehicles that could present a safety risk.
While most South Side business owners who attended Wednesday's meeting agreed that the security cameras were valuable in protecting South Side visitors from serious harm, they worried that police and city officials overlook the technology's role in combating issues like disorderly conduct and littering.
"How does this help with broken windows?" one business owner asked.
"I see a lot every weekend," added an employee at a South Side hotel. "We submit bids to local companies to stay at our hotel, and [a company] denied us because we were deemed unsafe."
The South Side has long maintained a reputation as Pittsburgh's nightlife hub, with bars and entertainment venues stretching across a dozen blocks of East Carson. Especially on weekends, South Side residents say, the area becomes rowdy: shattered beer bottles litter the streets from intoxicated patrons with an "anything goes" mentality.
Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus said that those issues have been at the forefront of South Side residents' and business owners' concerns during his 11 years in office.
"The number-one phone call that I get in my office is around waste management, and second is disruptive or disruly behavior," Kraus said. "If we drive crime from Carson are we ... pushing it into the neighborhoods? I think that's a conversation we need to continue."
Business owners east of 19th Street or west of 10th Street-- areas still lacking security cameras-- feel vulnerable, and they worry that crime is being pushed their direction.
"I mean Memorial Day flags, that's pretty low," said Gary McBurney, owner of Vapor Galleria in the 2700 block of East Carson, of a recent theft he experienced. "You put them out and they get stolen. Everything we put out gets stolen. All the kids come up from the bars, drunk, at 2 in the morning, peeing in the streets, throwing their stuff. They cause harassment."
Zappala admited that the public safety initiative still has more to accomplish. He'd like to install blue-light panic buttons and safety bollards to sidewalks. There's also talk of adding ShotSpotter gunshot detection sensors in the South Side to work in tandem with the security cameras. But Zappala argued that issues like littering and disorderly conduct are difficult to control via surveillance.
"When you talk about relatively minor crimes, we should be issuing citations for that," Zappala said. "I'm not a police agency. This is intended to be a spine for further buildout of a system. Grafitti, public urination, stuff like that ... has been stabalized. We're moving the right way."
Kraus stressed that those issues are taking a toll on South Side residents, who often have to replace car side mirrors swiped by intoxicated drivers or sweep shattered glass off of their stoops. He said he'd like to create an ad campaign that reimagines the South Side's reputation as a place for entertainment but also a place for mutual respect.
Other community members expressed a desire to reform the area's liquor license regulations, which they say are too loose. Zappala said he'd speak with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board about limiting available liquor licenses in the South Side and adding responsibility clauses to them to prevent overserving patrons.
Overall, both Zappala and Kraus were pleased with the early results from the South Side's surveillance system. They said they hope that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's upcoming reconstruction efforts on the South Side will only add to a new commitment to public safety.