Catching a criminal on video can really help an investigation, but poor quality technology can produce a video that's more frustrating than useful.
In January 2005, a convenience store employee was shot and killed during a robbery in El Cerrito, Calif. Police were able to retrieve a video recording of the murder, but the recording did not help identify the shooter. This made the case doubly tragic, says El Cerrito Chief Scott Kirkland, who recently retired as the El Cerrito chief and is serving as chief in a contract position until the city hires a new chief.
"You can see that a robbery occurred, you can see that a person was shot, but because of the poor quality video, we can't make out who the shooter was," he says.
That bothered the 31-year law enforcement veteran immensely. Poor quality video is a common problem. Stores have video surveillance systems but never maintain them. Videotape is sometimes used over and over, and tape degrades over time. On Sept. 20, 2007, the El Cerrito City Council approved an ordinance establishing minimum technological standards for the installation and maintenance of a video surveillance system.
Working to mandate video quality for business
While several violent robberies brought the issue to the top of police priorities, Kirkland is quick to point out that the Video Surveillance Ordinance was not solely a result of the police department's work.
In April 2005, Kirkland brought the concern to El Cerrito City Manager Scott Hanin, who supported the department by looking into how the city could mandate better video quality. The project was set aside until 2007, when there was another robbery in which a store owner was murdered in front of his wife.
"I always think whenever there is a negative situation, turn it into something positive," says Kirkland, who was awarded the Joe Molloy Award, the California Police Chiefs Association's most prestigious award in 2010.
Kirkland wondered what could be done to protect the employees (often the victims) of store robberies, and started by proposing a video surveillance ordinance.
"We knew it would be difficult to pass," he says, noting it was among the first in the United States.
The El Cerrito Police Department presented a proposed video surveillance ordinance to the city council, along with possible funding solutions for businesses that would be required to have continuous digital surveillance if the ordinance passed.
During the city council presentation, El Cerrito Capt. Michael Regan showed a video that had been taped over hundreds of times. On the video, the date stamp blocked the suspect's face. "We explained this is representative of the video from the majority of our businesses," says Regan, who's been in law enforcement for 23 years.
While the city council considered the proposed ordinance, El Cerrito PD had a homicide case that showed the difference high-quality video could make. In this case, the perpetrator was captured on video using the victim's credit card in another city. Based on the video, El Cerrito police were able to track down the suspect and make an arrest.
"I said, 'We've got something here. We just have to figure out how we're going to make it work,' " Kirkland recalls. He and Regan began a campaign going to business groups, talking to anyone who would listen, and listening to anyone who would talk.
In the past, Regan explains, if the police department wanted to modify the municipal code they would go to the council and there wouldn't be a lot of community input. He says holding community meetings for the video surveillance ordinance early-on went a long way in gaining community support. Talking to individual businesses impacted by the ordinance was also essential.
Businesses required to use a system under the ordinance include:
- Stores that sell beer, wine or distilled spirits "to go"
- Stores that sell firearms
- Pawnbrokers, secondhand dealers and coin dealers
- Check-cashing businesses
- Banks and credit unions
- Fast food restaurants
- Convenience stores
- Shopping centers that include one or more of the establishments listed above
The biggest question from businesses was: Who would be responsible for funding the new video system? In response, the city established a financial assistance program for small businesses that conform to the ordinance. Independently owned businesses with no more than three locations may apply to receive a loan for 50 percent of the cost of the surveillance equipment, up to $5,000. Shopping center owners may apply if what they own is less than one acre. The four-year loan has a zero percent interest rate. Funding for the program is limited and applications are considered on a first-come, first-served basis. If businesses comply with the ordinance for five years, the city, using economic development funds, forgives the loan.
When police departments and others call asking Kirkland how they might establish a similar ordinance, he says offering businesses funding assistance is key.
He is grateful, too, that Hanin lent the police department an economic development specialist and a community outreach specialist.
The police department also got help from the private industry, creating technical specifications that would be achievable for businesses and useful to police. Regan estimates he spent two weeks talking to people about security and technology, including big security system representatives and small alarm installers, casino security, and a physics professor. Specifically, he says ADT, Bay Alarm, and Bay Area Alarm Association were helpful.
At the time, DVR technology was starting to take hold, therefore the ordinance requires a digital video recorder.
- Have one dedicated channel for each camera in operation
- Have a recording resolution of 640 x 480 or better
- Be able to record at 15 frames per second, per camera. For example, a system with 10 cameras would need to have a DVR capable of recording at least 150 frames per second.
- Have enough memory to retain data from all cameras for a period of 30 days
- Be able to view and retrieve data while the system remains in operation
- Be able to time stamp and watermark the recorded images
- Be able to burn DVD-R copies (to be played in a standard DVD player or Windows Media Player)
- Operate with a minimum of 480 Total Vertical Lines of resolution
- Be able to record color images and switch to black and white recording in low light
The following should be taken into consideration when selecting camera type:
- Distance to target image
- Lux rating, or compatibility with the amount of light available to include excessive amounts of sunlight
- Camera view angle in relation to the desired area of coverage
Monitors must be:
- 15 inches LCD or larger (Size is measured diagonally)
Power supply must be:
- A dedicated power source for the system
Kirkland describes the technical specifications outlined in the ordinance as being at the low end of a very good system. Without going into detail, he says the El Cerrito City Hall and PD have cameras inside and outside that comply with the ordinance.
Promoting moral responsibility
Once the ordinance was passed, the news media helped promote it. The ACLU thought the ordinance would promote an invasion of privacy, but Kirkland says, "We made it very clear that the ordinance was not being designed for any area that was not publicly accessible."
Signs in the stores and stickers on entrance doors remind customers they are under video surveillance. "We want to make sure this is public," Kirkland says.
Primarily, the response to the ordinance has been positive. Of the approximately 80 businesses that fall under the ordinance, he says only one did not initially comply and threatened to challenge the ordinance legally, but did not. "My question is, why would you?" asks Kirkland. "The purpose of the ordinance is to protect your customers and your employees. When you look at it from a moral and an ethical standpoint, I think you do have a responsibility to protect your employees."
El Cerrito police were pleasantly surprised that a majority of businesses installed twice as many cameras as required. They also use web technology to monitor their business from home. For example, one store required by the ordinance to have 30 cameras installed 70. These "slip and fall" cameras ward off any customers looking to profit by making a false claim against the store. When talking to small businesses, the police department discusses the potential for both crime prevention and liability reduction.
Having had some time with the ordinance in place, Kirkland says overall, he wouldn't change it. Technical specifications are reviewed about every two years to ensure they are up to date. But one thing he has thought about is the amount of time the police department is investing doing initial and annual inspections. The first year the ordinance was in place, Regan estimates he spent three months helping businesses ensure they had camera systems that complied with the new ordinance.
"The more time you spend on the front end preparing your vendors, the people who are doing the installations, and helping merchants understand exactly what you're looking for, the better off you are," he says. "We told all of our vendors that they could not install one camera, one screw, one wire until we looked at the plan with them on site."
There are always going to be variables for every store that can't be seen in a 2D drawing. "Where the sun comes in, in the afternoon is going to impact camera performance," he says, and that's something best understood on site. Typically, Regan and El Cerrito PD detectives do an initial, pre-inspection on site with the vendor. When the vendor starts installing the cameras, they go back and look at a couple of camera views so any issues can be addressed before the vendor leaves the site. About two weeks later, they view video to check the quality.
For businesses that had systems installed flawlessly, that's three visits; however, he says a majority of the systems did not run flawlessly. Regan tells other law enforcement agencies to plan to spend time with the businesses. Because it's a concept the police department came up with, Kirkland still maintains it seems unfair to charge businesses for inspections.
Selling the product
Since the ordinance was passed, Kirkland and Regan have received phone calls from throughout the United States from cities looking to follow in El Cerrito's footsteps. As a result, there's a lot of information on the police department's Web site.
When police departments ask for advice, Kirkland tells them, "Make sure you are prepared to sell the product."
Many cities like El Cerrito have caught a robbery or a murder on video, but the perpetrator is still running free because police can't identify him. Kirkland looks back and says, "We took a very negative situation and became proactive." But, he says, "My heart still goes out to the families that are suffering the loss and pain of losing loved ones. That still bothers me a great deal that those murders occurred while I was police chief." Some of the cases that led to the ordinance being created remain unsolved.
How the new systems are impacting Part I crimes is difficult to determine, Regan says, especially with Part I crimes down throughout California.
"I can tell you when crimes are occurring, we're getting great evidence," Regan says. And the word is out. After a recent robbery, he was approached by the media looking for the surveillance video.
"They said, 'We want to get it out there for you and help you get this solved,' " he says. In El Cerrito, the police department, businesses and the overall community are seeing clearly the benefits a digital video surveillance ordinance has to offer.
Editor's note: The El Cerrito PD Web site can be found at www.el-cerrito.org/police.
Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.