Wi-Fi Meets The Wire

Motorola’s high-speed wireless networks give cops slick new tools to fight crime.

The view from high above one of L.A.’s meanest streets shows three young men looking for trouble. The trio follow a man walking his scooter across 103rd Street in the busy Watts neighborhood when all of a sudden they push the man, grab the scooter, and start running. Just as suddenly, several plainclothes police officers jump out of a compact car–cops who had been alerted earlier to the men because of a video surveillance camera perched on a pole about 150 yards away. Dan Gomez, a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, knows that such small-time thievery hardly compares to the gang-related violence that has bedeviled this community, but he shows off the taped arrest as evidence of how technology can make a difference.


The camera, one of seven in and around the battle-torn Jordan Downs housing project, is part of a $1.4 million pilot program that’s being funded by a Department of Justice grant and by Motorola. Video surveillance is hardly new: For years, LAPD cameras in the city’s MacArthur Park have been credited with reducing drug traffic. Motorola has expanded on that idea by streaming the images not only back to the precinct but also right into police cruisers–and then allowing officers to remotely pan the cameras, or zoom in or out. At a minimum, it allows for “situational awareness,” or the ability to size up a potential problem before arriving on the scene.

Over the years, Motorola has supplied the LAPD with everything from handheld radios to a computer-aided dispatch network. The company became interested in the Jordan Downs project as a way to grow its wireless-broadband business for police departments and other law-enforcement agencies. Earlier this year, the city of Plano, Texas, approved the purchase of a $21 million Motorola broadband system that lets cops access crime data from the field. It’s still a relatively small revenue source for Motorola, but the growth potential is large and the margins are better than those for cell phones. “This is exciting technology to law enforcement,” says Hugh O’Donnell, a sales manager with Motorola’s government and public-safety divisions, who is working on the Jordan Downs program. “And it’s a test bed for us. Over the next several years, this is where the industry is going.”

Since the cameras at Jordan Downs were first installed almost a year ago, crime in the neighborhood is down about 30%, although the police stress that there may be other causes at play, such as increased patrols and community outreach. Another factor: Crime has dropped significantly throughout L.A.’s Southeast Division, a hopeful sign after several years of gang activity. The violence had become so bad that kids were afraid to walk a few blocks to school. Many just stayed home.

“The cameras have made a difference,” contends Pastor Mike Cummings, a former gang member who for nine years has been escorting students to and from Jordan High in a program known as Safe Passage. As school lets out on a sunny Friday afternoon, Cummings, a large man wearing a gang-neutral yellow shirt and holding a walkie-talkie, watches over large groups of youngsters walking home on 103rd Street. They’re going either to the weathered apartment buildings at Jordan Downs, barracklike structures fitted with barred windows and satellite dishes, or to modest detached homes in the neighborhood. Several blocks from Jordan High, Maricela Vargas is pushing a stroller with three grade schoolers in tow. “About a year ago, there was a lot more violence,” she says in Spanish, pointing to what had been a dangerous area just down the street. “Now, it’s calmer.”

The Jordan Downs technology centers on a Wi-Fi mesh network (Motorola brands it as MotoMesh). A mesh network uses a large number of wireless signals hopscotching from point to point and all connected to one another to create a seamless blanket of coverage. It lets a large area share data and video and provides greater bandwidth in holding onto a video signal–even in a speeding police car. Wi-Fi mesh has a wider reach than the standard Wi-Fi hot spots used in airports and restaurants.

So far, the Jordan Downs program is a work in progress, despite the drop in crime figures. The surveillance system is frequently down for maintenance or changes to equipment. At LAPD’s Southeast Precinct, a five-minute drive from Jordan Downs, a big-screen monitor carries live feeds of the surveillance, but Sergeant Gomez can’t maneuver the cameras on the day I visit because Motorola’s tech people are making software fixes. At the same time, video isn’t available in the cruisers because the department is updating its overall communications network.


But Gomez is optimistic and says there already have been lots of lessons learned. For instance, early concerns about vandalism proved to be unfounded, making the expensive encasing of each camera in a heavy, Kevlar-protected box unnecessary. Without the boxes, he figures, there might be enough money for more cameras. And the community seems to want more of them, despite privacy issues raised by the American Civil Liberties Union and a scattering of studies that question how effective video surveillance is at reducing crime. Again working with Motorola, the LAPD plans to install cameras at both the Imperial Courts and Nickerson Gardens housing projects, two other notorious crime venues. “When we first proposed the cameras, people said, ‘You want to do what?'” Gomez recalls. Now the cameras are part of the neighborhood–and for Motorola, part of an emerging business model.