How Police Decide What Surveillance Images Get Released

By Carlton Purvis, Published Jan 27, 2014, 12:00am EST

Police are embracing social media to help solve crimes. Most departments have an email list of local media outlets they can send photos and video too, but social media enables them to do more.

We talked to three agencies about how they decide which photos to run and what kinds of images and videos are most effective at generating tips.

Key Findings

Here are the key benefits and issues we found from talking to law enforcement:

  • Frees them from being dependent on media to run stories, allowing them to directly get info out
  • Helps them get tips on cases with no leads
  • Enables them to publicize lower level cases they would otherwise not have resources for
  • Spurs friends and families to turn suspects in
  • Look for best facial images as well as images that show make, model and color of car
  • Biggest problem with submitted images - too dark night time photos and cameras too far away

Compared to Traditional Media Releases

The Vancouver, Washington Police Department created a new page [link no longer available] as part of an overhaul of its web presence, used to push out images, nothing that “It’s not always feasible to send out a media release every time you have a theft from a store. Or sometimes, even when you do send them, the media won’t pick up on them, so when we did the website redevelopment we decided that maybe we should have a page to put these photos,” said a public information officer Kim Kapp.

“[In the past] these images would be floating around, but they wouldn’t be getting to the level of a million or even 10,000 people seeing them.

Public Help Closes Cases With No Other Leads

When the site first launched, Vancouver says the department had tips coming in right away that led to arrests or charges being filed. Sometimes they got confident enough IDs that they were able to obtain suspects’ addresses and send them court summonses instead of making physical arrests.

Some of the cases featured on the site are low level thefts that police are not investing a lot of resources into because of the nature of the crime. In other cases, the video images are the only leads or evidence they have. The web page has helped close cases in both categories, the Vancouver PD says, but it’s hard to say how many cases where ID led to closing a case because “there are several things that can help push a case along.”

The Richmond, Virginia Police Department who we also spoke to says they usually post photos and video when detectives are having difficulty solving a case, and although they don’t keep numbers on how many cases were solved using surveillance images “it is very effective.” The city also has a page dedicated to unsolved murders.

“When [detectives] have difficulty solving a case in the first few days, they often use our office to release the information, and it has show excellent results,” said department Public Information Officer James Mercante.

Who is Turning People In

Often it is friends or family members turning people in when images are published. Not out of malice, police say, but usually out of concern.

“They don’t want the person to get into more trouble,” Kapp said.

Richmond doesn’t track who is providing the IDs for suspects, because they calls come in through an anonymous tip line.

How Images Are Chosen

In Vancouver, the detectives on a case will usually forward around 10 images to the public information officer and the officer picks the best ones to use for social media. In some cases the Public Information Office will proactively pick a handful of photos from a police report to feature online.

In Richmond, detectives will ask the public affairs unit to post certain photos.

“If it’s a series of images, then we choose the best three or four images and post them to our social media site. For videos we edit and grab the best [clips] under 10 seconds, knowing that if the media picks it up that’s the most they’ll usually air,” Mercante said. Richmond PD also blurs the faces of any bystanders and minors and tries to limit clips to sequences that show only the suspect.

“We want the suspect to be the image the citizens can focus on,” he said.

The agencies say they look for images or video that can provide the best facial images. If the quality if poor or the camera angle is off the focus on distinctive clothing or jewelry. License plate numbers are good if possible, but often an image that can help determine the make, model and color of the vehicle is enough to tie a person to a crime.

Cameras from chain stores have proved to be valuable in all types of cases from robbery to identify theft.

“A lot of retailers and business owners have very high quality cameras and we always love that because it provides us with something really relevant that we can send out,” Kapp said. Most of the current images on the PD website are from stores.

Here are some images from the local Target, Safeway and 7-Eleven:

The Worst Images

Sometimes the public tries to be helpful and provide images, but the quality of the photos or video are too poor to use. Agencies will take the footage to use for the case but usually won’t release them to the public.

The most common problem making footage unable is bad lighting. “We’ve got [video and images] that we can’t use because of lighting issues. Facial features in low light situations haven’t been that great."

Bystanders with cell phones will sometimes try and take photos or video they can provide police, but in many cases it's shot from too far away to be helpful.

Also, they still see a few places using poor quality VHS for surveillance.

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