Yes, big brother is watching you on the street — although not in the way you might think.
Federal Way’s Safe City initiative was launched in 2009 to help decrease criminal activities within city limits, and to date, the city has 200 cameras as part of the program.
According to Michelle Roy, civilian crime analyst for the Federal Way Police Department, it is difficult to track whether the cameras have decreased crime in the city. She said there have been several instances of the cameras assisting police with ongoing investigations.
For example, on May 30, Travis Zimmerman was driving around a Twin Lakes neighborhood in the early morning delivering newspapers when he was shot multiple times after attempting to confront a male who had been following him around. Zimmerman was shot in the face, jaw, both legs, buttocks and groin area, which he survived. Roy said that thanks to the Safe City cameras, officers were able to locate the suspect’s vehicle, which led to his arrest.
Officers also use the cameras from their vehicles during bigger situations when they are on the job, such as hit-and-runs or armed thefts.
Just as important as the cameras, however, are the volunteers who watch them. Or rather, volunteer — there is currently only one volunteer who monitors the cameras.
“I love being able to save the detectives and officers the time, take that off their plates,” said Lisa, whose real name has been changed to protect her identity as requested by Federal Way police Cmdr. Chris Norman.
Lisa has been a volunteer with the Federal Way Police Department for the past five years, and she genuinely loves it. She said it’s her chance to give back.
The room she sits in inside the police department is relatively small, with one wall taken up by massive screens displaying some of the more inhabited intersections and areas in Federal Way. Lisa said these were the areas where something was more likely to happen.
The cameras could also soon have the ability to track license plates in connection with criminal activity, she said. She likes to watch out for the city on the cameras, and especially officers who are on calls where the cameras are.
Her typical volunteer schedule puts her in the observation room for about five hours out of the week. She sits at a small desk with a large computer screen, which also has camera footage she can scroll through. A police scanner sits on a short wall between her desk and a second desk in the observation room, where she listens for activity she can view from the cameras.
While Lisa does enjoy her volunteer activities with FWPD, she wouldn’t suggest it to anyone who gets bored easily.
“Most days, nothing happens,” she said. “It can be really boring.”
But she says if you don’t mind the occasional excitement interspersed with the boredom, it’s a great initiative to volunteer for. And while boredom is certainly a part of her duties, she doesn’t escape stressful situations.
“The only time I really feel pressured is when we have something going on, live on camera and I’ve got three or four commanders standing over my shoulder watching,” she laughed. “The adrenaline keeps you from being as smooth as you might be otherwise.”
While the city also has cameras that give photo tickets for speeding and running red lights, these cameras are specifically aimed for keeping the city safe.
“This is completely separate from the red light cameras and the school zone cameras,” she said.
Before becoming a Safe City volunteer for FWPD, Lisa worked as a registered nurse for 10 years, a medical transcriptionist, and a homeschool teacher to her son for 18 years.
During a Safe City Initiative speech at the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce luncheon in May, civilian crime analyst Michelle Roy said the Safe City initiative is based off of a model of policing found in Northamptonshire, England.
This all started when Target partnered with the Minneapolis Police Department to increase safety in their downtown core, where Target’s corporate headquarters is located.
“Reps from Target visiting Northamptonshire, England, and the results from that visit founded the crime prevention initiative known today as Safe City,” she said.
At the program’s height, she said, there were 25 Safe City programs throughout the country.
The city also received a grant from the state to add more Safe City cameras, and Lisa is excited to be able to view other areas of the city that weren’t viewable before.
“I love it that we’re getting more and more, it’s like, ‘Oh finally … finally we’ve got cameras,’” she said.
Cmdr. Norman said that while the cameras are not a fix-all thing, they are helpful to the department.
For instance, if a call comes in and it takes officers a few minutes to get to the scene, the cameras can provide additional eyes on scene in case anything else happens.
“You can get to the scene via the camera in a matter of seconds,” he said. “It can take officers time to get to the scene, and a lot of things can happen in two or three minutes.”
Norman said it was also helpful for a crime without any leads. The cameras can go back to the scene to try and pick up any leads that may not have been known previously.
“We’ve had some successes with that,” he said.
However, the cameras do not replace citizens calling 911 if they see anything suspicious, and Norman said there are “way more people seeing things than we can generate from cameras.”
The cameras provide a great enhancement to the law enforcement efforts in the city, Norman said, and they allow volunteers such as Lisa to act as a back-up to police and dispatch if she sees anything on the cameras that was not reported.