Surveillance cameras play increasing role as investigation tool
By Steve Irsay
(Court TV) -- For years, the electronic eyes of surveillance cameras have stared from banks, traffic intersections, stores and countless other perches.
But as the watchers have increased in recent years, with an estimated two million video surveillance systems in the U.S., according to the surveillance industry, investigators are turning more and more to the footage for helpful glimpses of crime.
"There is so much more video out there and investigators are seeing that and looking and thinking about video more than they did in the past," said Detective Eric Kumjian, a robbery detective and video analyst with the Miami Dade Police Department.
In a case that has high stakes, investigators in Maryland, Virginia and in Washington are hoping that surveillance tape may be used as a tool to find the elusive sniper who has killed nine and wounded two since October 2. Did the tapes capture a glimpse of a car, a license plate or an image of the suspect himself?
Criminals being caught red-handed is nothing new. Videotaped footage proved invaluable in capturing the last fleeting images of September 11 hijackers, and most recently, the scene of an Indiana mother caught beating her daughter.
In Washington, police at every shooting scene are looking for a camera that may have caught something, but so far their searches have only yielded some of the common frustrations in dealing with video footage.
One of the security cameras at the Exxon station where 53-year-old Kenneth Bridges was gunned down on October 11 was pointed toward the interior of the store and not at the pumps where he was gunned down.
The gas station where Dean Meyers, also 53, was felled by a single shot two days earlier also had a security system but it remained uninstalled in the box when the sharpshooter struck.
Even when a security camera does catch critical footage, it usually takes a lot of work for investigators to harvest usable images, experts say. The growing field of video forensics enables police to scrutinize video feeds for precious clues. Through computer wizardry, analysts are often able to convert fuzzy blobs into images of suspects.
"Even if the information is degraded and the camera angles are bad it still gives us something and maybe we can clarify some of that information," said Det. Kumjian, who has been doing video forensics for four years. Last year, his unit worked on scouring ATM videotapes for clues about Sept. 11 hijacking suspects who lived in South Florida.
Surveillance technology has improved greatly since the 1960's when federally mandated bank cameras could not even capture the movements of people. The first documented instance of police surveillance was in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1966. After five years, the system was credited with only two arrests and was dismantled.
The advent of digital technologies in the 1990s has improved picture quality and made offsite monitoring through the Internet much easier. Still, analysts are most often called upon to work with more primitive analog tape footage.
One of the most common problems video forensic analysts say they confront is overuse of tapes. When a tape is used more than a dozen or so times, the image begins to literally drop off the tape due to chemical deterioration, resulting in grainy footage.
Camera angles can also be troubling as most privately operated cameras are poised to capture cash register theft or shoplifting and not necessarily incidents on other parts of the premises. Sometimes, though, the police get lucky.
Last month in Indiana, Madelyne Toogood shoved her 4-year-old daughter into the back seat of her SUV, scanned the Kohl's parking lot to see if anyone was looking, and then started hitting the girl. The entire incident was caught by a video camera used to deter shoplifting and car theft. The footage was broadcast around the world and Toogood eventually surrendered to police to face child battery charges.
There are few studies that have tracked the effects of surveillance video on police investigations but anecdotal evidence, like the Toogood case, suggests that investigators are increasingly relying on private footage from stores to help in their investigations.
"If we have a major crime in an area we go to stores and gas stations," said Lt. Marty Parker, who started the Everett, Wash., surveillance camera project five years ago.
Lt. Parker recalled a particular case where a young man was killed in a botched drug deal in the middle of a deserted football field. There were no witnesses and no suspects until police went to area stores and found gas station footage with clear shots of the victim and two suspects shopping shortly before the time of death.
More than 200 local and state law enforcement agencies use some form of surveillance technology, according to the International Association of Police Chiefs. But despite suggestions of the growing importance of surveillance footage to police investigations, the bulk of police operated cameras are actually being turned on the cops themselves in places like squad cars and station houses.
"The most increasing use of surveillance cameras in police areas are to protect against liability suits and to fend off any complaints of patterns of abuse and discrimination," said Marcus Nieto, a researcher at the California Research Bureau who studies surveillance.
He predicts that law enforcement agencies are not likely to increase the number of cameras they operate with respect to crime prevention and investigations. Instead, Nieto anticipates efforts to improve the quality of surveillance through increased cooperation between law enforcement and businesses.
And while advocates may point to caught-in-the-act evidence and falling crime rates, opponents of surveillance inevitably cite rising Orwellian fears of Big Brother watching.
"Surveillance with no particular purpose, where information can be recorded and stored and there is no oversight and accountability, is clearly a problem," said Mihir Kshirsagar, a policy analyst for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is currently lobbying for increased surveillance camera guidelines in Washington D.C.
"It's reasonable for people to ask what these images are being taken for and that is what the Big Brother aspect of it is," Kshirsagar said. "It's not a paranoia."
In a report on public video surveillance, the ACLU warns that human prejudice can always influence the way technology is employed by law enforcement.
"Surveillance systems present law enforcement 'bad apples' with a tempting opportunity for criminal misuse," the report states, citing a 1997 incident in which a Washington D.C. police lieutenant was charged with using a police license plate database in an extortion plot against patrons at a gay club.
Camera-shy individuals would be well advised to steer clear of England, the world leader in surveillance. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the British government has installed 1.5 million cameras and the average Londoner is taped more than 300 times a day.