Police locked out of security cameras

by Tom Beck
Posted 2/28/24

The cameras use software that’s not compatible with the Philadelphia Police Department’s camera monitoring system.

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Police locked out of security cameras


If you look at the top of the telephone pole stationed in the parking lot at the entrance to Forbidden Drive at Bells Mill Road, you’ll see three security cameras paid for by Councilmember Curtis Jones’ office. 

That trail is in Roxborough, and the cameras are there because members of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association have been lobbying for years to get better security for that parking lot, which – like many lots near Wissahickon Valley Park trailheads – has long been plagued by “smash and grab” thefts from cars.

While the typical hiker might feel a sense of security knowing that the cameras are there, perhaps they shouldn’t. 

The cameras, which Jones’ office purchased with discretionary funds and had installed about two years ago, use software that’s not compatible with the Philadelphia Police Department’s camera monitoring system. As a result, the cameras are going unmonitored and have mostly been useless.

And that, to say the least, has left some people feeling frustrated.

“What’s annoying to me is we’ve been dealing with this forever,” said Rich Giordano, who was the civic group’s president at the time of the cameras’ installation. “As it turns out it was [Jones’] mess up from the jump.”

Sgt. Eric Gripp, a public information officer for the PPD, told the Local in an email that police “weren’t directly consulted in the purchasing or installation process” of the cameras and weren’t made aware of their existence until after they had already been installed. 

That’s also when the civic group learned that it wouldn’t be possible for the police department to monitor the cameras, which was the reason why the group wanted them in the first place.

“We had been requesting cameras for years due to multiple break-ins and some attacks,” said the civic group’s current president, Theresa Kehler. “It seemed ridiculous that we couldn't catch people.”

The civic group was “happy to hear they granted us the cameras,” Kelher said. “But they’re not really working the way we intended them to.”

Jones’ office declined to respond to the Local’s emailed questions for this story, which included a question about the cameras’ total cost, via the councilmember’s chief-of-staff, Joshua Cohen. 

In an email, Gripp confirmed that the new cameras are “having compatibility issues with our city systems.”

The cameras are recording footage. However, police investigators can’t monitor the cameras in real time. Rather, they must make a special request to see their footage long after a break-in has already occurred – and even that hasn’t exactly gone as planned.

“When you pull the footage, the quality of the picture is not so great,” said Kehler. “So a lot of times we can’t even identify the [offender].”

She said the city “is not working very well with us to resolve this issue,” although Gripp told the Local that the police department is actively working on a solution.

“We're currently working with the vendor to address firewall issues and see how we can access the cameras directly,” Gripp said. “While we currently do not have a timeline as to how long it will take to rectify the issue, we're committed to finding a solution.”

Giordano said the trailhead along Bells Mill Road is often used by both Roxborough residents and out-of-town visitors, and the frequent break-ins are a serious problem.

“That’s not the welcome we want people who aren’t from the city to have – to have their car broken into,” he said. “There’s a real problem and we can’t seem to get it fixed.”

The predicament the Upper Roxborough Civic Association faces isn’t unique. There were 585 reported smash and grabs in the 14th police district alone last year, which includes Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Germantown, many of which occurred at trailheads all over the Wissahickon.

Gripp said the police department “shares the frustration surrounding the current situation” and “appreciates everyone's patience and understanding as we navigate these technical challenges.”

Friends of the Wissahickon executive director Ruffian Tittmann told the Local that the organization works regularly with councilmembers, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and local civic groups to mitigate crime throughout the park.

“We share safety information for visitors, and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation has put up safety signage in some locations,” she said. 

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation spokesperson Maita Soukup previously told the Local that parking lots near trailheads and popular picnic areas can be targets for car break-ins across the country, “not just in the Wissahickon.”

“Park visitors,” she said, “are encouraged to not leave anything of value in their car, or leave anything visible from the window.”