Video makes the case

Chicago's approach to video enhancement helps solve crimes


     From his office in the Chicago (Illinois) Police Department's 16th District Tactical Unit, Lt. Joe Schober reviews the usual array of case and arrest reports collected over the past 24-hour period. But in recent years, a few new items have been added to the information he must review. This new information comes in the form of video sources from retailers and gas stations, and these videos contain footage of robberies or thefts.

     Two years ago, it was considered unusual if a district or area received more than one or two videotapes or disks a week. Today officials might receive two or more videos per day. The influx of video recordings requiring viewing and processing created a variety of problems. All video sources coming into police custody must be inventoried and subsequently viewed by a special sections unit. The equipment the section traditionally used was quite sophisticated but not intended to deal with a variety of video sources. Additionally, the manpower allocated for video workups remained the same while the number of incoming videos increased. Determining which videos to review first also became a concern. Videos containing information on violent crimes receive top billing. This translated into increasing delays, and as such delays multiplied, the opportunity to successfully pursue criminals recorded on video dwindled.

     But the utility of video cannot be underestimated and thus Chicago had to find a means to address these problems.

     "There's a big difference between the offender descriptions provided in the identification boxes of a case report and the description that can be seen when reviewing video of an actual crime," explains Det. Jim Adams of Chicago PD's Area Five Detective Division.

     A major benefit of having good video is that it can be repeatedly reviewed, diminishing the chance for confusion. For instance, victims are often so traumatized during the commission of a crime that their acuity, even within minutes of the event, can be drastically and detrimentally affected. If the suspect brandishes a gun or a knife, victims often focus on the weapon rather than the offender. Descriptions of height, weight and age are frequently so subjective that two people witnessing the same incident may give police entirely different accounts.

     Furthermore, video helps authorities address deliberate attempts by criminals to confound identification, such as ditching articles of clothing immediately after a crime. Because most people are aware that gangs often display or wear colors associated with their affiliation, more generic clothing has become the fashion-of-choice among gang members. Consequently, offender clothing descriptions often include a suspect wearing, for example, a dark hooded sweatshirt, or more commonly, a white T-shirt and jeans. It is not unusual for a group of offenders, intent on committing street robberies or muggings, to flood an area with people in similar dress in order to confuse victims, witnesses and the police after a crime has been committed.

     During the course of an investigation, Adams contacted Procom, a local business in the 16th District that specializes in surveillance equipment, and met with Paul Pustelnik, one of Procom's senior members. After discussing the problems encountered in the timely processing of video recordings, Pustelnik suggested Adams use some of Procom's equipment to see if any of these problems could be resolved. With this equipment, Adams tested sample videos that the forensic unit had experienced trouble opening or from which no useful footage could be obtained. Within minutes, Adams not only opened the problem recordings but produced reasonably good quality stills.

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