Police gain access to school cameras in Macomb County

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

In the wake of Florida’s school shooting, school officials in Macomb County have provided county emergency responders direct access to video cameras inside and outside of classroom buildings in an effort to add an extra layer of safety.

As of Tuesday, Utica Community Schools and Romeo Community Schools were the first of 21 districts to provide Macomb County’s Communications and Technology Center, known as COMTEC, access to on-site school cameras.

In the event of an emergency in either district, employees at COMTEC, which includes the sheriff’s office dispatch, can immediately access live feeds of cameras in public areas of schools such as hallways, exterior doors, large rooms such as libraries and outside views along nearby roads and parking lots.

Chippewa Valley Schools and Fraser Public Schools are in talks over whether to provide the same access, as educators and law enforcement officials from around the nation grapple with how to make students safer in schools since a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and killed 17 students and staff members on Feb. 14.

Utica Community Schools Superintendent Christine Johns said there are already a number of practices in place to keep Utica’s 28,000 students safe. They include keeping all exterior doors locked, limiting entry to a front door with identification and employing an in-house security team on site.

“This is another tool for us to use, God forbid, in an emergency if we need to,” Johns said of the new camera arrangement with COMTEC.

Utica has cameras only in its four high schools. Johns said COMTEC will not have routine access to cameras, only in emergencies.

“In looking at previous and current events, we are living in a new day,” Johns said. “What we want to make sure is that we have access immediately so there is no delay. We need to protect children.”

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said on Tuesday that camera technology at COMTEC – which includes a 20 foot by 50 foot video wall with 54 individual monitors with 50 display variations – has been around for several years and is used to monitor flooding and road conditions.

But after the recent school shooting in Florida, Macomb County school districts are stepping forward to form partnerships with COMTEC to provide an additional layer of safety for students, faculty and responding law enforcement officers.

“What has happened is a concern for many of us,” Hackel said. “Since we saw the incident play out with Columbine, Sandy Hook and saw what just took place down in Florida, each time gives us a better sense, an opportunity, to renew what is it we are doing to see if there is something we can do better to make it safer for our kids.”

“Here in Macomb County, what we have added is an incredible opportunity” to improve safety for children going to school, the faculty in that school and the officers responding, Hackel said, “If and when it were to happen here.”

Hackel stood in front of the video wall inside COMTEC, which displayed scenes from a high school in Utica Community Schools, from school hallways and entrances to local roads and intersections nearby.

One camera showed a still shot of a schematic of the school. Some cameras were moveable, providing a 180-degree view of library inside a school. Students were not in school due to the winter break.

Hackel said COMTEC, which opened in 2013 at a cost of $12.8 million, has the most advanced technology of any county in the United States or any security facility in North America.

Hackel said while local law enforcement responded to a school in an active shooter emergency, officials at COMTEC could activate cameras in schools at its center in Mount Clemens. As local officers are moving through buildings, a commander at COMTEC can provide information from the video monitors.

“We can click on cameras and see exactly what is happening in that facility. It gives us an excellent advantage. We can zoom in, do rotation in a room, so if someone is hiding in a room, we can see that live,” Hackel said. “So when you have officers responding from a SWAT team, you have one of their commanders talking to them live as they are going through that school.”

Hackel said it takes about 30 minutes for a school official to provide COMTEC with access to cameras. He said he has been in discussions with all districts about providing access and “all of them” are interested.

Ronald Roberts, superintendent of Chippewa Valley Schools, said he is considering whether to allow COMTEC access to his district’s cameras, a question the school board will decide.

“We are going through the process now. More and more, it looks like what we’ll do. We have cameras in buildings K-12 and our early childhood center. We are really right there,” Roberts said. “There is always more you can do.”

The district has two buildings each on two high school campuses. The Dakota High School campus has more than 3,100 students. The Chippewa Valley High School campus has about 2,500 students.

Roberts says the technology is wonderful, but relationships with students are important, too.

“Staff and kids, they have to feel comfortable talking to each other. You need to be ahead of these things before they do happen,” he said.

In Wayne County, emergency management officials say they do not have access to cameras inside any of the county’s schools.

Tadarial Sturdivant, the county’s director of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, said along with practiced drills, he encourages school districts to work closely with their local first responders before an emergency happens.

In the event of an active shooter, an official with Wayne RESA, the county’s intermediate school district, would work with emergency responders to provide as much information as possible to local police on the ground.

Cameras would be helpful and welcome, but come at a price, he said.

“Anytime you can enhance your eyes and ears, it would be good,” he said.

Tom Hardesty, manager of Oakland County Homeland Security, would not provide details on how his agency handles emergency situations in schools or elsewhere.

“Video is a great tool, but how we utilize it, we don’t provide details,” he said.