Sharing Surveillance Video with the Police

By Brian Rhodes, Published on Feb 22, 2012

Sharing surveillance video with the police is a regular and important aspect of having a surveillance system. This can be crucial in prosecuting crimes committed against yourself, your neighbors or the general community. To do so, a number of important decisions need to be made. In this post, we review the steps in finding, exporting and helping police use surveillance video.

  • Ensuring approval to share
  • Accessing the surveillance system
  • Finding what you want to share
  • Determining the format shared
  • Helping the police

Ensuring Approval to Share

It is important that a manager of the system provides approval. Sometimes this is trivial and obvious, other times it can be complex:

  • If the incident is against the user of the system and the user wants to submit video then directy inquire to local law enforcement for guidelines of how to properly submit exports and ensure the video is usable to the agency.
  • If the incident is against a visitor, neighbor or customer, then consider the legal sensitivity of the request.  Feedback from this LinkedIn discussion [link no longer available] suggests submitting video directly to Law Enforcement and not directly to 3rd parties.  Local legislation may require sharing video, but only after the proper approval has been granted [link no longer available].
  • If the incident is against the public and the police request, consider full cooperation for mutual benefit even if they do not have a legal order. These situations have recently been the focus of a seperate update titled "Private Surveillance of Public Places"

Accessing the Surveillance System

With hundreds of different systems on the market and varying ways to get video, you will need to know how to use the specific system. If you do not, contact the installer of equipment for instruction. If you cannot or they do not know , you will have to take your chances on the Internet or calling the manufacturer. This can be a pain. For instance, we get calls weekly from people asking for help on exporting video from their surveillance system from random DVRs.

Finding What You Need

Still Available? Before you start, check how far back video is currently archived. Typically, video is recorded over every few weeks or at best every few months. If the event is before the time recorded, there is nothing you can do. This happens frequently so keep this in mind and do not delay in trying to retrieve video.

Identify the length of event. Often users will ask for buffers (periods of time) before or after the identified time in case they miss action beforehand or after. Instead of simplying exporting for 30 seconds that you find a suspect, you might record 5 minutes including 2 minutes before and after.

Next, find all the cameras that have captured the event in question. If activity moves out of frame of one camera, does another pick it up? Often a suspect is captured on many cameras - e.g., parking lot, entrance, backroom, etc. Sometimes, users will export all videos on premise just to be safe.

Once you know what time and cameras you want to share, you can proceed with planning out finer details of the export process.

Key factors to consider:

A number of technical and potentially confusing options arise when determining the final exported product:

  • Preparing export media: an often overlooked aspect of exporting video is the verification and preparation of the export media. This media is commonly 'blank' CD/DVD discs, Solid-state 'USB thumbdrives', or an email exchange. Checking first to make sure that media is properly formatted, of good repair, and contains sufficent storage capacity will facilitate a good export
  • Multiple camera export: Can the system export video from multiple cameras simultaneously? Some systems cannot do so, or can only do so in certain formats. In that case, you will need to export a separate file for each camera.
  • Watermarking: Does the system support watermarking? Do you need watermarking? Sometimes law enforcement want ways to verify that video has not been tampered with. Support by surveillance systems varies widely - from no support, to simple implementations to advanced processes.
  • Formating: What video format should you use? Not all platforms offer a choice, but this decision commonly means deciding between exporting video into proprietary format or a common format like '.avi'. Typically, the proprietary format exports higher quality video, but the common format is playable using basic viewers that come with most computers.
  • Waiting: Time required to generate the export: The length of time it takes to export the video segment can be surprisingly long. Be mindful that exporting video from proprietary encoded formats to 'basic' file formats is not instantaneous and can result in processes taking many hours to complete. For lengthy segment exports, you may find it advantageous to make law enforcement aware of the leadtime the process requires.
  • Failure: Did the export fail?  What happens if the export process hangs?  If this happens, you can try breaking up a single large export into multiple smaller ones.  If that is not a solution for your case, then your next option is to contact the manufacturer for advanced support.
  • Validating: Validating the export before sharing: It is a good practice to export video to local attached storage first and confirm it works. From that location, you can copy over to external media. This ensures that a 'backup copy' of the segment of interest is prevented from being overwritten should the released copy be misplaced or lost. Depending on your industry, you may be subject to legal requirements that clearly define where this segment is stored.

Helping the Police

Most of the time, you will need to help the police:

  • Training: Do not expected the reciepient of a video segment to be familiar with the playback interface. Give them an overview of controls or quick instruction on how to playback video from the player used.
  • Playback at their facilities: Law Enforcement agencies typically have problems downloading software from the Internet or installing software on their PCs. In order to be accepted, all video must be playable on common or fundementally basic players (ie Windows Media Player), or the specialty viewer needs to accompany the exported video segment and be playable without local install. If video exports are not produced in common file formats, then consider that video should be playable from 'portable applications' or other self-executable viewer.
  • Setting the right expectations: Sometimes an awkward exchange takes place when it is revealed that the recorded video lacks detail. A common misperception is that capacity exists to clarify or add detail to a video segment that is not already present.  
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