Interview With Law Enforcement On Surveillance

By: Carlton Purvis, Published on Apr 30, 2013

We recently interviewed International Association of Chiefs of Police experts about various issues, uses and best practices for police agencies regarding video surveillance. We touched on topics ranging from storage and codec frustrations to crime displacement and drones. In this post, we recap the conversation and provide the complete transcript.

Inside, see law enforcement comments on:

Smartphones Displace Crime More Than Cameras

The experts we spoke to say cameras displace criminal activities when they are set up in crime hot spots, but only up to a point. They say crimes against person and crimes against property will typically decrease over time after cameras are introduced. The crime that stays usually has nowhere else to go. Often it is more convenient for criminals, drug dealers, for example, to stay in their familiar areas, even after the cameras go up. They either don't care about the cameras, forget or learn to work in their view. 

"That area is the area where drugs are traded so the customers and the sellers are going to congregate there because essentially they have to ... But what is reduced is the amount of drug trading. What changes is the method. The method becomes less observable. It’s arranged by telephone.

There are ways to operate in front of the camera without actually doing the transaction in front of the camera ... I’m not sure that the displacement that takes place is geographic. It’s an adaptation to work within the gaze of the camera one way or another. "

For example, people will often wear clothing or hats that obscure their faces or set up transactions in front of the camera but perform them at another location. 

What law enforcement say has more of an impact on geographically displacing crime is another technology: Smartphones.

“ The emerging technologies like smartphones and other kinds of communication devices probably have more impact on taking some of these crimes inside or behind the computer terminal than actual displacement by an overt camera ... The displacement issue in terms of taking crime off the street is heavily impacted by the bad guys using other technologies that make it easier than doing it on the street.”

Public-Private Partnerships

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Public-private partnerships between law enforcement agencies and private entities are becoming more common. The agencies benefit because they can expand their surveillance area for less money with systems that they do not have to maintain. Agencies say businesses benefit by increasing security in their neighborhoods. In some areas, the city provides incentives for businesses willing to give them access to their cameras and/or footage. Here is what the experts had to say about why public-private partnerships are gaining traction: 

“It’s good budgetary sense. The idea, if it’s appropriate, is that the police department doesn’t have to bear the cost of many cameras, maintaining those systems, and so forth, as long it is appropriate legally for them to obtain the imagery that those systems collect.” 

Partnerships also help standardization. When gathering footage, police are often faced with a number of different formats. Partnerships provide and opportunity for businesses and law enforcement to collaborate and standardize how video is recorded to make it easier to collect later.

License Plate Recognition Technology

LPR technology was described as the “biggest find since the police radio in the car” with “huge public safety potential.” 

“For a small jurisdiction it has great value for people who haven’t paid parking tickets, whereas when you have an Amber Alert out and you’re looking for a little boy who has been abducted it has huge immense value,” one expert said.

The ACLU and privacy advocates have questioned the lack of standardized storage rules for LPR technology -- a technology that gives police the ability to collect and store vast amounts of information that could be used to track a person’s movement. Law enforcement say they just need more time to figure out how long the data is valuable. 

“There is retrospective value in terms of how when a crime is committed. [When] there’s a police car coming onto the scene and everybody is going the other way, they can potentially capture all of those license plates. It has huge evidentiary value ... We haven’t discovered the sweet spot yet though on retrospective value.”

Other Issues:

We asked the key issues and technical frustrations law enforcement had with surveillance. They named editing, copying, interoperability, and low-light performance as major concerns.

Editing

Editing is a main factor that delays the release of video after a crime: 

“If you look at the video released in Boston they took a great deal of effort to go through and blur faces. That takes time. It’s not something you can do quickly or easily, even with today’s modern editing systems. So sometimes [not releasing video to the public], in my opinion, is not because law enforcement doesn’t want to cooperate but they have a responsibility to protect innocent bystanders and make sure their identity is concealed.”

Legal Concerns When Copying Video

Some of the first digital cameras used internal storage to record video which was a problem when it came time for investigators to provide original video in court. The original was on a drive inside the camcorder, (and had probably been recorded over because the same camcorder was used for multiple cases). This actually makes the first DVD copy the “original.”

federal court decision, known as the Rosario Rule allows for duplicates of video to be used in a trial as long as the original can be made available to the court and all copies have not been edited. Law enforcement using camcorders for investigations find that camcorders using SD cards with two slots (that can record simultaneously) have proved most valuable for Rosario compliance. It allows officers to make a copy for the investigator and have one copy (the original) to go in the case file. It saves time by duplicating video in real time and preserving the original so it doesn’t have to be used in court and can be produced if needed. 

Interoperability

Surveillance systems are often built piece by piece-over-time, one contract after another. Interoperability issues are inevitable. Law enforcement agencies would like to see are more turnkey solutions for installations. 

“Our agencies rely a lot on IP-based cameras, and although we try and deal with one vendor, no one vendor provides a complete turnkey solution. Well some do, but what happens [is] I have a network video system that has one guy’s router in it, another guy’s camera, some third party software which is running the recording system, and (if something goes wrong) it becomes a technical nightmare.”

Low-light

They touched on low-light video capabilities, saying “there’s still the issue of being able to identify the person of interest in certain conditions.” 

Drones

Law enforcement see surveillance drones as a way to increase effectiveness on a shrinking budget. They like them because:

  • They are easier to maintain and faster to launch than helicopters.
  • They cost less than helicopters (so if you lose one, it can be replaced for cheaper).
  • It is safer to fly a drone into a dangerous area than a person. Additionally, the downdraft from helicopters can cause additional stress to damaged buildings limiting how close they can get to a situation. 

Dummy Cameras

Law enforcement sentiment was that dummy cameras are a waste of money and a bad idea. If a person is worried about activity that needs to be deterred they’re “wasting everybody’s time” by opting for a dummy camera instead of a real camera. Said one interviewee, “I’ve not seen a dummy camera that looks real enough to fool most people ... The only way you can put up a camera that looks real is to put an actual camera up there. I think that’s more of a market ploy than anything.”

Note: You can read the complete transcript of the conversation here

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