Deterring the Mob Mentality

The State College (Pennsylvania) Borough Council was looking for answers. During the summers of 1998 and 2000, students from Penn State took part in large-scale riots. These led to dozens of arrests, thousands of dollars in property damage, injuries, several student expulsions and national media coverage. While Penn State usually appreciates media attention, being known as the “riot school” was not the reputation Penn State or the Borough of State College wanted.

Today, a state-of-the-art video system monitors the streets in the most troubled areas. While controversy surrounded the decision by the Borough to install video cameras on a public street because of privacy concerns, there is no question the electrical contractor handled the job well.

The project started in August 2000 when the Borough Council created a Staff Committee on Riot Prevention. Members met to discuss possible riot prevention methods. The committee recommended several solutions, such as sending letters to students’ parents about arrests for certain crimes, notifying Penn State Judicial Affairs of student arrests and providing more police presence.

Cameras catch on

The committee also generated ideas that members classified at the time as “less practical.” These included limiting the number of people permitted on apartment balconies and allowing Penn State to buy what members called “problem properties.” Another “less practical” idea proposed was installing cameras on Beaver Avenue to monitor activities. But within months, the plan to install surveillance cameras picked up steam, especially after students rioted again in March 2001 when Penn State’s men’s basketball team lost during an NCAA tournament.

The Borough contracted with Wacor Electronic Systems, East Petersburg, Pa., to install the cameras on Beaver Avenue in downtown State College. The town of State College is built around Penn State University, which presents some interesting and ongoing security challenges for both entities. A year earlier, Borough Council authorized State College Police Chief Tom King to look into installing cameras on the 200 and 300 blocks of East Beaver Avenue following the three destructive disturbances. The area, known as “the Canyon,” is one block from campus. It is home to several bars and a number of private residences including apartment buildings with outdoor balconies.

The idea was to install cameras that would focus at the street level but could also give coverage of lower-level balconies. At the time, King said the cameras, for most part, would be in recording mode, but could be switched to live monitoring in special circumstances.

“Really, there were only two issues,” said Cork Roschel, vice president of Wacor. “One was the general public, worried about cameras being focused into their bedrooms. The other was kids who didn’t like to be on camera when they are doing what they should not be doing.”

Blackout circuits were specified to take care of the first concern. Blackout circuits cause the screen on the camera to go blank when the camera is turned toward a window. This protects homeowners from peeping. Also called privacy screens, these circuits allow the viewer to see the outer portion of the building but all of the windows will be blank.

Proof is in the recordings

The second situation was the whole reason for the cameras. “It appeared that at least half of the people involved in the riots were students,” admitted Bill Mahon, Penn State spokesman. “We have to take responsibility and be a good neighbor.”

While King said he believes cameras could serve as an additional measure for riot prevention, he said the most significant benefit would be to deter criminal activity on a daily basis. King said there would not be a police officer constantly monitoring the camera feed. Rather, recorded images would be stored digitally on a computer and kept for 30 days. Footage would only be reviewed when an incident was reported in the area of the cameras.

“This isn’t a riot issue,” King was quoted at the time. “Students are being urinated on and having beer dropped on them from balconies. If we could cause fewer citizens to be victims of crimes, aren’t we better off? We’ve tried everything else and all other efforts have not decreased crime in that area. If we had three instances of riots and that was it, we wouldn’t be recommending cameras.”

However, once they realized its potential, the scope of the cameras’ application changed.

Though originally proposed to prevent riots, King saw installation of surveillance cameras as a way to monitor all crimes, not just riots. “I want them to make it safe day in and day out—not just to prevent a riot once every two to three years,” King said.

Wacor installed three Philips G3 Day-Night EnviroDome Outdoor Systems cameras. These high-resolution and high-sensitivity units come in 25x day/night versions plus color, or in black and white 18x day/night. They have digital image stabilization, privacy masking and sector blanking, slow shutter control (frame integration).

The cameras carry a hefty price tag of $4,500 each. Not included in Wacor’s bid was a rack to hold the cameras, which cost an additional $3,089. The cameras are under warranty for the first year. Camera housings are made with a rugged weather-resistant design which can stand up to Central Pennsylvania winters.

“There was no backbone or network,” Roschel continued, “so the initial contract, originally just for installation of the three cameras, was expanded to include a fiber link to the police station.”

Fortunately, there is a substantial fiber network in place in State College. Wacor brought fiber cable from the camera locations to nearby parking garages and then linked into a multifiber pipe that went to the police station.

“There was plenty of backbone available,” Roschel said. Indeed, two of the garages had nodes for 48-fiber links and the other had 12 strands.

The cameras are mounted on poles on the streets. Power is tapped off the light sensors that feed the street lights. Wacor obtained pre-authorization from the power companies for two of the locations. The third pole is city-owned.

“All three cameras operate off of 110 power,” Roschel said. “Since we had 110 to tap off of, that was the easiest way to go.”

Why not wireless? That was the city’s call. Wacor appreciates the benefits of wireless and currently is working a traffic system in Pennsauken, N.J., and the airport in Latrobe, Pa., with wireless systems.

“The first thing we look at is the customer’s needs and what they want to view,” said Gary Kimmel, general manager of the Tipton subsidiary of Wacor. “Next we look at the head-end placement and how the customer wants to transmit their video.”

Kimmel said they prefer to go with fiber optics when they have the choice.

“State College Borough is a firm believer in hard wiring,” Roschel said. “They wanted to do the job in fiber.”

Bidding and winning

Wacor, which does many state and government contracts, won the public bidding, coming in just $1,500 under the second bidder. Each bid included the three cameras, a video recorder, software, installation, travel costs and training.

It turned out that the hardest portion of the job was completing the fiber run. “The fiber conduits were underground, but it was a tough pull,” Roschel recalled. They used buffer cable all the way. “That was just our preference,” he continued.

In fact, the fiber pull is one area Roschel would like to be able to do over. They brought six electricians on site to do the fiber pull. “We couldn’t get the pull string to blow through the conduit,” he said. Eventually they found that there is a box located down the run and they had to work around it. Still, it cost time.

In general, the job went smoothly. It took about three days to get the head end working at the police station. While the workers found it easy enough to use the pan, tilt and zoom functions, it took a bit longer to train them on the digital video recorder.

In addition to the equipment, State College has a year of warranty work available and then Wacor will offer a maintenance program. “If I were doing it again, I’d sit more people down at the initial planning phase,” Roschel said. “We’d all be on the same page about what has to be in place.”

Using the poles to mount cameras was one hurdle that did not seem so minor during the project. “The local guy at the power company said we could not mount anything on their poles,” Roschel said. “Eventually his supervisor said it was okay, that we already had the approvals. But it caused delays.”

Today, camera signals are transferred back to the police station in the municipal building on Allen Street using the fiber-optic network.

Police Lt. Diane Conrad said the cameras have recorded one or two incidents police officers have reviewed. Conrad says this number was “in the ballpark” of what she expected the cameras to achieve, considering the deterrent factor involved as well.

Borough Council President Richard McCarl is also happy with the cameras. “I think it’s been a good investment,” McCarl said. “I don’t hear any people or students complaining.”

HARLER, a frequent contributor to SECURITY & LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS, is based in Strongsville, Ohio. He can be reached at 440.238.4556 or ROTHMAN is a central Pennsylvania-based writer. She can be reached at


About the Author

Sarah Rothman

Freelance Writer
Sarah Rothman is a central Pennsylvania-based writer. She can be reached at .

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