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: