Camera Obscura

Posted November 19, 2008 in News

The 24-hours-a-day security cameras at Alvord high schools don’t work 100 percent of the time. These surveillance shortcomings could turn into a pretty pricey problem for the district.


The quandary is two-fold: The cameras work poorly at night—which everyone knows is prime-time for mischief—and they fail to cover sufficient areas of the campuses, such as Norte Vista High’s remote parking where vandals recently targeted more than two dozen cars and slashed tires during a football game. 


“I am very upset this happened to visitors, that they had get tow trucks and get tires replaced,” school board president José Luis Pérez tells the IE Weekly. “It’s not only time-consuming, it’s upsetting.”


School officials originally plunked down nearly $750,000 for the surveillance equipment and may face spending another half-a-mil in taxpayer money to replace them.

“We’re eating this money,” Pérez says. “There’s not that much money to go around to begin with.”


Apparently, it’s a case of “buyer beware” meets you-get-what-you-paid-for as one district official acknowledges that the camera equipment was purchased from the lowest bidder and it was known that the gear might require more light during after-hours surveillance. 


“We knew from the beginning that at nighttime the cameras might need extra light and, in an attempt to save some money, thought that these cameras would be sufficient,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Wendell Tucker tells the IE Weekly. “As it turns out, they are not sufficient.”


Adding insult to injury, the cameras themselves have been stolen or vandalized.


No final decision has yet been made on how to deal with the problem, but the district’s options—which could involve installing motion-sensor lights near existing cameras or replacing them outright—will be explored next month by the board.


School officials, concerned over student safety and campus security, purchased the camera systems in 2005 and had them installed the following year. Equipment and installation costs totaled about $700,000, Tucker says.


The cameras were installed at the district’s three high school sites, La Sierra, Norte Vista and Alvord, which is a continuation high school.


The cameras were installed to monitor high-traffic areas of the campus, such as passageways and portions of the parking lot near school buildings. The cameras are left on 24-hours-a-day though a real-life flesh-and-blood person doesn’t monitor them in real-time, Tucker says. Though they have been able to capture clear, identifiable images of vandals, they’ve only been during daylight hours. Past sundown, good luck.


“It’s not that the cameras don’t work totally,” Tucker says. “They don’t work in low illumination . . . In areas that are dark or where there is minimal illumination, the cameras do not pick up sharp images.”


Riverside police also confirmed the cameras’ problems, citing cases where the footage is too dark to glean any useful information.


“Their security cameras are mostly daytime so there’s an issue with that,” Sgt. Marco Quesada said this week.


Pérez tells the IE Weekly that camera resolution is so bad, the faces of vandals or other trespassers can’t be clearly identified—which was the whole point of buying the cameras. No faces. No descriptions.


“During the day, I guess you can see people and stuff fine, but at night all you would see, for instance, is five-foot-seven, 200-pound person in the parking lot or building or some place,” Pérez says. “There’s no definition.”


Pérez said he brought up the cameras’ nighttime ineffectiveness during a board meeting earlier this month.


“One of the things that kind of perked up my ears is we have, in the past, had employees get their cars keyed or get their tires slashed and my question has been to the superintendent, in front of board members, ‘Where are the cameras and why aren’t the cameras catching this stuff?’”


In a recent example of where the cameras aren’t came during an Oct. 17 Norte Vista football match against Fontana’s Kaiser High. A total of 30 cars, belonging to fans of both schools, were vandalized, some getting their tires slashed. The incident occurred in a remote parking lot that is not covered by cameras.


Adding to the problem, some of the cameras are installed within arm’s reach, making them targets for theft and vandalism. Pérez says he himself saw damaged cameras with dangling wires hanging from them.


“Putting cameras where kids can reach them real easily?” the board president questions. “That’s dumb.”


One possible way out of the darkness—pun intended—would be to purchase motion-sensor lights and install them near the cameras, Tucker says. Another option is replacing them. Pérez says one estimate for replacing the surveillance equipment totaled $500,000.


“They’re going to have to show me something that knocks my socks off before I agree to spend another $500,000 for another [camera] system,” he says.

–Roberto C. Hernandez



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