What Alarm and Video Surveillance Isn't

Can technology, by itself, make you safe? Can an alarm system, a video camera, a computer program increase safety while reducing costs? Without human support involved in the solution it is impossible to make anyone safer. All technology exists to enhance human interaction, human experience, or perhaps to increase longevity. None of those mandates work without the human being serving to interpret data, provide a response, and ultimately to adjust the technology based upon the input received.

The Tennessee Burglary and Fire Alarm Association puts it this way: "Alarms detect a change in a condition, such as an open door, a broken window, heat from a fire, smoke from a fire. Monitoring systems receive notification of the change of condition and then report the alarm or condition per the agreement with the client. In some cases the system also records the condition as it unfolds."

More simply put alarms, sensors, and other technology do the following three things:

  • Detect a change. A door is opened a circuit is closed or opened and the hardware detects the change.
  • Report the change. The system senses the change and actuates a phone dialer, emits a tone, or radios a message to the necessary personnel.
  • Record the change. The system makes a record of the situation.

Over the past several months I've met with a number of private security companies and private investigative firms, and listened as folks touted the enhanced security offered by their systems. With no human interface and reaction, the solution is nothing but a wad of wire connected to a group of boxes.

Who among your department has visited a regional monitoring station such as ADT, Sonitrol, ERMC, or Brinks? Better yet, have you ever taken a few minutes to call local alarm companies to explore their local services? We can't, as police officers, recommend particular brands, and most of us deal with false alarms and alarm reduction programs, whereas the owner of a house or business gets billed for false alarm response. Statistically, about 98% of all alarms are false.

Truth is, most of us hate house alarms, and fewer of us like commercial alarms.

Most officers don't know that most states have strict licensing requirements for sales, installation, and service of fire and security systems, including alarm systems. We only see Bubba and his alarm truck, installing systems. The reality is that Bubba is becoming a dying breed. The State of Tennessee, for example, now requires a 24 hour entry course with an examination, and continuing education credits for all new sales, installation, and management staff. Some states, such as North Carolina, require that the agent or company reside within 150 miles of the job site. The performance standard is being raised, both in a regulatory and business fashion.

Listen closely, the security industry has rapidly accelerated since 9-11-01 and many large corporate concerns are playing in this very big arena. The biggest in the world is Tyco. It seems they've bought up most of the existing innovative companies in the industry.

Video System Impacts

Exploding numbers of privately owned camera systems, ever-increasing numbers of city and state owned cameras, and gradually increasing competence among forensic examiners mean that video is here to stay, and is there and useful after a crime. In a robbery-homicide several years ago in my city, the suspects, with the victim, bought cigarettes at a convenience store near the crime scene. This seemingly unrelated video ultimately proved very important to the successful prosecution of the suspects. At a sports riot in Vancouver, Canada several years ago, many of those arrested were identified by local merchants' camera systems.

Where is it going? Who knows? One thing is certain: if you aren't contacting merchants near crime scenes to view video, you are likely leaving cases unsolved. In many cases, the merchant's system will run out of storage within 30 days, and will overwrite the video shortly thereafter.

Everyone who investigates bank robberies knows that it's typical for a suspect to stash a stolen car nearby, leave the scene on foot, and drop their disguises as the run to the getaway vehicle.

Many homes are now adding video enhanced alarm systems as well. Find an abandoned stolen car, and canvass the nearby neighborhood. You might find the homeowner's system by the robber's escape route caught a wonderful portrait. In all cases such as bank robbery, we generally find that the suspect loses his or her costume somewhere nearby. In many cases the suspect can be identified by examination of video from locations a short distance away. While competence on the part of the alarm company is increasing, police officers need to be more interested and attuned to the solutions being deployed in the areas near a crime scene.

More than ever before

Take a survey in your beat. Find camera systems near your highest crime areas. Learn where camera systems are located. If incidents are occurring nearby, see if there is a camera that could have caught the action you are concerned with. Convenience stores are still installing cheap, tape based systems. Make sure they rotate tapes and suggest simple maintenance. Work with local businesses to arrange for camera(s) to be re-tasked to look at the area where crime is occurring. Ask to see the tape and verify that it is still in serviceable condition. I've seen some cases where the entire tape is nothing but clear acetate because if has been used continuously for years. We also discovered that the metal oxides that made up the medium for recording would make solid bricks inside the recording mechanism as it ground away on the video recording heads.

Cameras increasing, monitors aren't

The lesson in all of this is that the camera count is exploding, but the number of people watching, examining, and utilizing the video is not. Many cameras are powered but never monitored, and output is never examined and is ultimately overwritten. This is where cooperation between the police and private companies come into play.

At least every major crime investigation should involve a walking canvass of the neighborhood looking for the human witness. Now that same canvassing needs to include looking for the video witness. If you supervise a detective bureau, take a drive around town. Look up state and local government camera systems, such as those owned by a state department of transportation or transit authority. Check the surveillance systems of local retail malls. Learn who is in charge of the systems, and build a working relationship; you will solve more crime.

Good hunting, and good watching!

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