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TMCNet:  NMSU camera policy can help security on campus [Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.]

[December 15, 2013]

NMSU camera policy can help security on campus [Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.]

(Las Cruces Sun-News (NM) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 15--LAS CRUCES -- When authorities recovered electronics stolen during a summer burglary at New Mexico State University, they credited a set of clear surveillance images.

Captured by security cameras at O'Donnell Hall, the photos went from police to Crime Stoppers to the public. Several tipsters in the community quickly recognized the three young men accused of nabbing a computer and digital projector worth about $2,100, leading police to the items and suspects.

But such helpful evidence isn't always available -- sometimes it's bad luck, sometimes it's an equipment problem.

A lack of uniformity, and sometimes quality, in surveillance equipment throughout NMSU's vast campus hinders some criminal investigations, officials said. It's an issue that has developed over the course of several years from a combination of factors, and one that school personnel are working to change.

"Standardization is the key," said Lt. Lyn Hodges of the NMSU Police Department.

Hodges, a veteran investigator, added that surveillance cameras aren't an "end all, do all" crime solver, but they play a "huge" role. NMSU officials are hoping that a security camera policy passed by the school's Board of Regents last May will help make that equipment even more effective.

There are about 200 surveillance cameras in use throughout buildings at NMSU, according to a note on an earlier draft of the policy.

"Over a lot of years different departments have put in different cameras," said Norma Grijalva, interim head of the university's Information and Communication Technologies department. "People were all doing their best, but it wasn't unified." In some cases that rendered NMSU's well-intentioned surveillance efforts ineffective.

Said Grijalva: "There were lots of challenges before." Some cameras were outdated. Some facilities had trouble consistently saving a proper archive of tapes. Others gathered video without a timestamp, weakening its usefulness as evidence.

Some people responsible for a given building's surveillance cameras may not have a necessary grasp of the relevant laws and regulation, many of which deal with balancing security and privacy.

The new policy appears to address many of those shortcomings. It details several guidelines, covering everything from how NMSU departments gain permission to use security cameras to installation, proper signage, staff training, data storage and more.

NMSU's goal, as described in the policy, is to have all security cameras brought into compliance by June 2015.

To Grijalva, the key is having a network-based system. That allows Grijalva's department to protect the data collected by the cameras, store it securely and give NMSU police quick access when necessary.

So far, she said, 73 surveillance cameras around campus are connected that way.

Several of those are in O'Donnell Hall.

For several years, John Bazan, a systems analyst there and one of the building monitors, has viewed surveillance camera video from a screen in his office. Recently he got help. Most of the cameras there are fed right to NMSU police.

The on-campus law enforcement agency lacks the manpower to constantly monitor all those feeds. But when they are watching, officers can respond quickly.

That was demonstrated last week when a NMSU police officer approached a Sun-News photographer moments after she took pictures of an O'Donnell Hall surveillance camera for this story. From the NMSU police's monitor, it seemed suspicious, so they dispatched a nearby officer to investigate.

"It's a good partnership," said Jennifer Villa, director of the Learning Resource Center at O'Donnell Hall, and a building monitor there. "If we come up with the camera, they do the labor." Purchasing the cameras and other necessary equipment is still a challenge. The security camera policy doesn't require NMSU to buy cameras for any department that requests one. That, combined with spending guidelines and stretched budgets all around campus, means department heads shopping for security cameras have to be creative.

Villa, who helped bring the cameras to O'Donnell Hall not long after its renovation a few years ago, said officials are soon getting cameras installed at a building that NMSU's colleges of Education and Arts & Sciences share. So, leadership in each college agreed to split the cost.

Martha Mitchell, associate dean of the College of Engineering, said officials there recently installed a couple of cameras. Her assigned building hasn't had thefts, but it's connected to buildings that have, and many study there after hours.

To pay for the cameras, Mitchell said they used research grants that had been returned.

In the future, more departments may be scourging for such funds. The next step, Grijalva said, will be "dealing with the quality of the cameras." The hope is that cameras and associated signage will deter criminals. But if it doesn't maybe more buildings can collect the type of clear images used to close last summer's O'Donnell Hall burglary.

James Staley can be reached at 575-541-5476.

___ (c)2013 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.) Visit the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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