Using Private Sector Surveillance Cameras to Stop Crimes

As number of CCTV cameras grows, law enforcement finds a major asset for investigations


A motorcyclist was killed by a hit-and-run driver on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. But the driver could not run far: a wide-angle surveillance camera at a B.P. gas station recorded the collision, and a camera at a construction site captured him removing the license plates and throwing them into a trash bin. The recordings - and the license plate - led the police to the man and his white Mercury Marquis.

A woman was stealing wallets from women's locker rooms in health clubs on the Upper West Side. Then one of the stolen credit cards was used at a Filene's Basement in Manhattan. Using the transaction information and the store's surveillance video, the police matched the thief's image with another surveillance video of her stealing from a Jewish community center, created a wanted poster and soon had her under arrest.

The proliferation of private surveillance cameras around the city and the nation - and their public-sector counterparts - have spurred debates about privacy. But more quietly, in ways large and small, the cameras are doing something else: they are transforming police work, joining witnesses and fingerprints as key tools in investigations. "One of the things we do at the scene of any crime is look for cameras, private-sector cameras," said Raymond W. Kelly, the New York City police commissioner. "It was not standard procedure 10 or 15 years ago."

As the cost of digital video systems drops and as the quality of their images improves, surveillance cameras are appearing in places like health clubs, construction sites and carwashes. Spurred after 9/11 by security concerns and businesses' increasing vigilance over their customers and employees, the video surveillance industry is growing at about 15 to 20 percent a year, about double the rate before Sept. 11, according to Joe Freeman, the chief executive of JP Freeman, a security consulting company.

Cameras now play a role in recording evidence on crimes from pickpocketing to murders to bombings. Two week ago, when two handmade grenades exploded outside a Third Avenue office building, detectives immediately began a search of surrounding cameras. They came up with more than 40 video recordings from more than 20 locations, including one from directly across the street that showed the explosions. Using the video, the police have been able to identify several potential witnesses.

"It used to be you got to a crime scene and what you had was whatever was left there: a cigarette stub or a tire skid," said John Firman, director of research for the International Association for Chiefs of Police. "Now it's possible to have between 5 to 10 video clips that they can gather from that area, depending on how public that area is."

The tapes can prove more reliable than human witnesses' fuzzy recollections. The objective nature of cameras has been critical in forcing confessions and gaining convictions. In the perjury trial of the performer known as Lil' Kim, in which she was convicted, a video shows her standing within a few feet of Damion Butler, a rap producer known as D-Roc, before a shootout, even though she claimed in her grand jury testimony that she did not recall his presence. The improving quality of cameras, recording systems and digital enhancement means that evidence - like a license plate number or a face - can be more easily singled out. It is not simply "caught-in-the-act" scenes that prove helpful, but also views of people coming and going from the crime scene, or even videos from a completely different time and place that are linked to the original crime and suspect.

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