Police Unlock AI's Potential to Monitor, Surveil and Solve Crimes
Law enforcement agencies like the New Orleans Police Department are adopting artificial-intelligence based systems to analyze surveillance footage. WSJ's Jason Bellini gets a demonstration of the tracking technology and hears why some think it's a game changer, while for others it's raising concerns around privacy and potential bias. Photo: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal
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- [Narrator] Facial recognition has become a hot button issue in the U.S. The controversial practice was recently banned in San Francisco. But few people realize that many police departments have adopted artificial intelligence, using it to analyze video surveillance footage, which can track objects and people. - I've taken 8,213 objects, and I've reduced it to 80 objects. - [Narrator] Other new technologies, like sensors, drones equipped with augmented reality capabilities, and real-time crime centers are also making their way into police departments in the U.S. - All that technology, used for the right purposes and the right reasons, I think is good. - So while, no, I don't want to be mugged, I want to be in a community that's safe, I don't think expanding surveillance is the way to do that. - There is just a lot of technology being acquired that's collecting information on everyone, regardless of whether you're involved in a crime or not. And I don't want to end up in a version of America where people are afraid to do things in life because of being watched all the time. - [Narrator] To understand how police departments use these new technologies which makes law enforcement much more powerful, we traveled to New Orleans. For the past year and a half, the city's Office of Homeland Security has been operating a real-time crime center. The city's installed over 400 cameras in hotspots, from the French Quarter to outer-lying districts. It also pulls in camera feeds from over 150 businesses and private home owners. The system screens all incoming calls for service, including 911 calls, which automatically activate the network of cameras. - All of these cameras would spin up automatically in the software when any incident is created within a tenth of a mile of these three blocks. - So your eyes can be there before an officer's eyes. - Sure. All of our cameras are pan, tilt zoom cameras, 30 times optical zoom. - [Jason] And you can very easily rewind back and also see it happening. - Sure. If it's obviously associated with a criminal matter, we'd go through historical footage and provide that information to the officers. - Some police officers in New Orleans have quickly embraced this access to recorded surveillance cameras. (lively jazz music) This street's pretty well covered by cameras? - Yes. Cameras on every intersection. - Paul Johnson's been with the New Orleans police force for six years. He's a night shift detective in the French Quarter. That camera right there, it's hiding in plain sight right there. - Correct, yes. This particular camera actually has assisted me on one of my latest cases. Probably like a couple months ago we had a shooting at this very intersection about 4:30 in the morning. The gentleman that got shot claimed to be the victim. We watched the video surveillance, went back, and it showed that actually he was actually shooting at the young man first. So it kind of helped us exonerate the guy we were looking for. - And if you didn't have the camera, do you think you would have known the truth? - No, absolutely not. (crowd cheering) - We talked to Paul Noel, the second in command of the New Orleans police. There are critics out there and people who aren't comfortable with the idea of the police having cameras. - Absolutely. The more information that we have out there, we need to make sure we're using that information for the appropriate purposes. That's one thing where we absolutely stress here in New Orleans, is that we have accountability measures in place with all the information that we have, that the information is not gonna be abused by our investigators. - [Jason] One of the critics questioning the surveillance cameras in New Orleans is community activist Dee Dee Green. She says that some people in her group, Stop Watching Nola, are afraid that they're being monitored, since a camera was placed right next to their community garden. - Knowing that the city is observing you and monitoring you may make people uneasy and uncomfortable about having a public conversation about the politics of the city. - In your neighborhood is there a consensus that these cameras shouldn't be here? - No, I don't think so at all. I attend a lot of neighborhood association meetings. People will say we need a camera on this corner, because this is a crime corner, or this is a problem corner. It's very easy to sell the narrative that these are here for your protection. We know that people of color, black and brown folks, are disproportionately profiled and targeted by police, arrested, incarcerated. So while, no, I don't want to be mugged, I want to be in a community that's safe, I don't think expanding surveillance is the way to do that. - [Jason] What most people like Dee Dee Green don't know is that not only can the video be watched and played back; the system's now equipped with machine learning and can analyze the content of recordings itself without any human oversight. The crime center in New Orleans uses a product called BriefCam. - In your case, you simply said "red truck". So if I changed the class of this to pickup and the color to red, I've taken the 8,213 objects that went through this space in a matter of two hours, and I've reduced it to 80 objects, and I can finish watching the totality of it in a minute and 45 seconds. - Superimposing 'em on top of one another. - [George] It's bringing in that actual object onto a fixed still frame and showing its total path throughout the frame. - [Jason] More and more law enforcement and public safety agencies across the U.S. are buying these kinds of technologies. Motorola Solutions is one of the largest vendors in the space. In Plantation, Florida, the company's showing us some of its newest high-tech gadgets and technologies, which the company only gives to potential law enforcement customers. The demo also includes a drone-mounted camera. Motorola Solutions sells a system that augments drone footage with real-time information, like labels identifying each officer on the scene. Daniel Tialdi from Motorola Solutions is playing a suspected criminal, and I'm a police officer at a private testing ground that's closed to the public. - [Designer] So this is you walking up on the scene, and we're tracking you from the drone feed. - [Jason] Tialdi attacks and stabs me. When this smart vest is pierced, the embedded sensors automatically notify the command posts. - So they can send reinforcements. - [Jason] It also switches on the body-worn camera. - Because your body camera came on, we actually have a description of who stabbed you. - [Jason] An analyst from Motorola shows us how, using the suspect's description, he can electronically hunt him down. - We know that it was a man. We know that he was wearing a red shirt. We know generally what time it was. As we start seeing all these people in red shirts, we can start looking for the actual individual that we're looking for. - [Jason] Motorola Solutions calls this descriptive artificial intelligence. The machine can pull from the pixels a description of a truck, a car, or a person. - You can see our results get better and better. As we get more of them, we see more and more. It also tries to isolate and pull out a clean shot of the face, the face tile as it's called. - The face tile can be used to refine the search by looking for that same face on other cameras connected to the system. If you have a long enough period of time, you could begin to see patterns of behavior as well. - Most definitely, most definitely. - [Jason] Once it knows what to look for, the system can also search backwards in time to track a particular individual's prior locations. This virtual time machine, experts say, is a game changer. It could, in many cases, eliminate the need for officers to track a suspect in person for days on end. Some of these new video analytics tools can detect weapons or unusual behavior. "Direction violated". - Yeah, this is your typical one, so if you're at the airport, you're coming out of these TSA areas. If anybody's walking the direction of the arrows, they're fine. If they turn around and walk in the other direction, it's gonna flag the alarm. - [Jason] The newest usage of artificial intelligence is a camera that will train itself to find unusual movements. - The camera will learn the normal motion activities in a scene over about a week or two weeks, and after that learning period, it will just automatically create an event and flag you when something happens that's unusual for that scene. - [Jason] The system has flagged people walking their dogs as unusual motion detection at night. - There is zero human input in this situation. You basically turn it on, the camera learns and does everything automatically. - It sounds to me like this is in more places than most people realize. - Well, it is an active and live product today. It is installed in many places across the U.S., most definitely. - So there are real-time crime centers-- - We asked Andrew Sinclair, general manager of Motorola Solutions, about the privacy implications of the technology. If something doesn't sem right, say something to the police. Are cameras able to do the same kind of thing? - There's things like anomaly detections. - But what about someone acting suspiciously? - Well, people's behavior is difficult, 'cause machine learning is not on that level yet. But if a crowd suddenly appears at an intersection where we wouldn't normally see a crowd appearing at an intersection. - I mean, the critics out there are saying this is becoming surveillance on steroids, that we're creating a surveillance state. What do you say to that? - I think it's important that we have the critics out there saying that, because we have to make sure that the right checks and balances are put in the space. But you have to make sure that that same technology can't be used to track your ex-girlfriend. - One of these critics is Dave Maass. He's an investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-for-profit that defends civil liberties in the digital age. Maass is skeptical that the police can police itself. - One of the things that worries me about the future of policing is how automated it's becoming. - [Jason] Maass and other experts are concerned that these unsupervised systems make calls on who belongs and who does not, potentially amplifying racial bias. For example, a camera might alert police officers to a perceived motion irregularity it detected, like an African American man walking through a predominantly white neighborhood with very little foot traffic. They also point to the fact that every police encounter is potentially dangerous, and these kinds of alerts could lead to unreasonable stops and searches by the police. - Artificial intelligence is becoming a sort of black box with law enforcement, where we don't necessarily know where they're using it and how they're using it. - [Jason] The next generation of body-worn cameras will have AI-based search capabilities already built in. - I'm looking for a person in a red shirt. - [Virtual Assistant] Are you looking for person in the red shirt? - [Designer] Yes. - [Jason] This way, all body-worn cameras in one city could be searching for a man in a red shirt or a missing child in real time. - And that's what's concerning, is this mass surveillance on society and what kind of impact that will have on society in terms of self-censorship, the ability to organize. And I don't want to end up in a version of America where people are afraid to do things in life because of being watched all the time.