Cities across the US are asking residents with outdoor surveillance cameras to register them so the police can easily review crime footage. It's useful, but not without challenges.
Private cameras installed by homeowners, neighborhood watch associations, and local businesses could provide useful footage after a crime. The problem is, the police don't always know where they're located. It isn't as easy as it's portrayed on crime shows like NCIS and Criminal Minds where the computer geniuses always seem to know where cameras are located and can quickly download the videos. In the real world, when a crime occurs, police officers will walk around the surrounding area looking for security cameras. That's time consuming.
Now, city police want residents and businesses to voluntarily register their cameras so they can store the camera's location, its make and model, and the area where it's pointed, in a database. This way, if a crime is suspected to have occurred in the area, the police can easily ask for the footage.
Being able to access these videos allows city police to extend their eyes and ears, so to speak, without spending money for more cameras, especially in areas that aren't considered a priority for installing city-owned surveillance. A basic consumer video camera can be purchased for under $100. However, those with higher resolutions and advanced features start around $200 (not including installation and maintenance costs).
One of the most successful programs is SafeCam in Philadelphia, with at least 1,100 registered resident and business cameras. The program began in August 2011, and this September, Jillian Russell, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Police Department said that during the past two years, police have made some 200 arrests based on video footage from those cameras.
When these programs first started, the police would visit a residence or business to obtain videos. However, some police departments are able to download the videos directly from the computer to which the camera is attached. This is obviously a lot faster and more convenient for the police. But it also raises some privacy questions about whether the police should be able to access a personal computer.
I haven't seen many articles discussing this, but residents might not be entirely comfortable with law enforcement automatically accessing their footage.
In Garfield, N.J., Sgt. Joe Marsh, a patrol supervisor and a member of the department's gang unit, said, "Every time we have a burglary or other big investigation, the detectives are out looking for cameras." The city owns more than 20 security cameras, but the police found 218 private cameras when it surveyed them in February. That's why they went door-to-door asking people to register their equipment with the Garfield EyeCam project.
If the residents agree, the Garfield police not only will download the video but also monitor the cameras directly from the station. Again, there's a possible privacy issue, and it would behoove police departments to be very clear about what they might do with private video cameras.
For example, the police should be clear that residents and businesses could refuse to allow remote monitoring, even during emergency situations. Also, police need to consider how to handle remote monitoring cameras when they watch potentially embarrassing, but not criminal, activities, such as nude bathing or backyard sex. The Newark Star-Ledger reports that some cities with their own cameras, such as Newark and Jersey City, have specific privacy policies, such as "who can watch the cameras, where they can be pointed, and how long their footage can be stored."
The Verge recently posted a detailed article about the use of surveillance cameras in New Orleans. The police department there even posts crime videos on YouTube in hopes of receiving tips from residents.
The New Orleans camera system isn't without problems. Some cameras are broken, and some residents' cameras have such low resolution that identifying suspects is difficult or impossible. Perhaps the police should consider discussing with residents the possibility of upgrading their cameras, although it could be a touchy issue without the city providing funds for upgrades.
Using private cameras for police work makes sense. But cities need to evaluate all the problems before starting a program.
— Alan Reiter, President, Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing