Inside VBPD's Oceanfront camera operations center

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Posted at 3:43 PM, Sep 16, 2021

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Most people know about the cameras at the Oceanfront, but few people from the public have been inside Virginia Beach Police's operations center.

On Thursday, News 3 got a firsthand look as camera operators sat laser focused watching for unusual activity.

Captain Billy Zelms, supervisor of the Technology Bureau, said to be an operator, "You need to be an effective listener, an effective communicator and be vigilant to what you're watching."

The city-funded security cameras are able to internally live stream what's happening on the beach, sidewalks and roads. Captain Zelms said it's all in the name of safety and said they do not violence the public's privacy or rights.

"We know that our officers can't be everywhere at any time, and we certainly know that we need more help than we currently have, so these cameras kind of act as that additional force," he said.

Cameras have been installed in the area since 2018, but News 3 wanted to learn what video they capture and how long footage is stored.

"We find out about an incident a day to a week or two weeks later. We can go back and look to see if the footage is there," Capt. Zelms said. "Obviously, the camera has to be pointed in a specific direction or looking at a specific field of view for us to get information that we're looking for at times."

Capt. Zelms also said the operators don't just zoom in and out without reason.

He said, "First and foremost, you look for the crowds and then you look at behaviors, specific actions, that are going on in the crowd. That's when [operators], many of who are former officers, start to advise our officers about what's going on. When we see large crowds, that in and of itself doesn't mean that that's suspicious behavior, but it might cause the camera operators to spend a little bit more attention."

He said it can also be helpful during big festivals and events.

On a smaller scale recently, camera operators helped officers make an arrest when, according to Captain Harry McBrien, "two juveniles were caught on camera brandishing weapons."

There have been times, however, when cameras didn't catch activity, like the fatal shootings at the Oceanfront in March.

As people question what happened that night, the department said, "Inevitably there are going to be instances where we don't catch an incident as it happens because a camera, for one reason or another, is not pointed in that direction."

Over the last 90 days, the department reports violent crime is down 48% near the Oceanfront. Captain Zelms said technology is just a piece of that puzzle.

"I'd like to reiterate the fact that the cameras are there for public safety and security," he said.

The center is also staffed seven days a week. City council has also approved funding for more than 40 new cameras, at the request of Chief Paul Neudigate.

The cameras will provide coverage of the Boardwalk and Atlantic Avenue from Rudee Inlet to 40th street. The estimated cost to add additional cameras is $1.5 million.

Related: Local police departments turning to technology to help curb gun violence

This comes after the deadly Oceanfront shootings on March 26. Since those shootings, police have increased patrol at the Oceanfront.

Captain Zelms said the cameras will be installed soon.