An Eye On CRIME

Using public surveillance cameras to capture homicides and other crimes.


On Tuesday morning, May 17, 2005, at 4:42 a.m., Philadelphia Police 6th District officers responded to shooting call. The responding officers discovered the body of a 48-year-old woman, a victim of a single gunshot wound to the head.

Patricia McDermott was pronounced dead at the scene. The post-mortem examination determined that the manner of death was homicide. The Philadelphia homicide detectives soon discovered that public cameras had recorded the murder.

"[On the tape], you can see McDermott walking down the street and then you see Juan Covington running," says Lt. Mark Deegan, a veteran of the Philadelphia Homicide Division.

"A post office camera caught him getting off a bus and walking down the street. He then goes through a private parking lot, so the camera in the lot shows him there, and then he's running down Market Street from 8th to 9th streets and a store camera picked him up from the waist down," Deegan adds.

Although thankful the cameras gave them images of the suspected killer, Deegan says it would have been even better if detectives had been able to zoom in and get a better look at the suspect. But despite limited technology, the tapes from the public cameras gave them an idea of how to describe the male, even if he didn't appear to have unique characteristics, such as a limp or three ears, as Deegan puts it.

Following up on a tip after the release of the photos to the press, detectives questioned Covington and he confessed to the murder after seeing the camera images. While the murder of McDermott appeared random, detectives soon learned Covington's bizarre motive. Covington's job was to remove hazardous waste, such as needles, from the hospital where McDermott worked as an X-ray technician. Covington believed that whenever McDermott took an X-ray, she directed the X-ray at him, causing him to be impotent — and for that, she had to die.

"He pled guilty because we were able to convince him we had him on camera," Deegan says. "He knew about the cameras because he had been watching the TV news."

Covington also pled guilty to two other murders. One was his cousin, a Reverend he had an issue with. He went to his cousin's church, shot him several times, then got in his car and drove away. The other murder involved an altercation with a man on a subway, which left the man dead.

Thanks to public surveillance cameras, a multiple murderer pled guilty and was sentenced to prison.

Finding functioning cameras

In his crowded office in the homicide division at Philadelphia Police Headquarters — the curved 8 structured building known as The Roundhouse — Deegan notes that one of its problems has been obtaining witnesses. A culture of "No Snitching," the slogan prominent on many T-shirts, as well as fear of retaliation from armed and dangerous criminals, limits the coming forth of witnesses. Cameras therefore play an important role in homicide investigations.

Philadelphia's murder rate is soaring. In mid-July, the homicide division had to contend with 21 murders in a 10-day period. And they recently had 14 murders over one weekend.

Knowing the importance of video surveillance in homicide investigations, Deegan says his detectives routinely go from business to business, trying to find out who has functioning cameras.

"We'll check MAC machines, as you would be surprised at how many times someone is making a deposit and you'll see a guy going behind them," Deegan says. Unfortunately, he notes detectives often find cameras are placed there to keep an eye on the employees rather than the bad guys.

"When you do find a camera that's functioning and get an image of a bad guy, it's not unusual for these systems to be lousy," he adds. "Businesses play these tapes over and over again to the point where they're not going to provide a good image for us to take that evidence and move forward to deal with a crime — especially murder.

"Our bar is pretty high."

But it's an important one to attain, when considering the number of cases these cameras can help solve, he says.

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