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.
He refers to another high-profile murder case that surveillance camera footage helped resolve. On December 4, 1999, at 11 p.m., a 59-year-old columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News, W. Russell G. Byers, was murdered in a robbery attempt in the parking lot of a convenience store.
Deegan explains that Byers' wife wanted ice cream, so the columnist pulled his car into a Wawa in the upscale Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, where Javier Goode waited in the parking lot, looking for a victim to rob.
"Goode had a toy gun and this nasty, Rambo-looking hunting knife," he recalls.
The suspect confronted the couple in the parking lot and ordered Mrs. Byers back into the car so she could drive him away, and at that point her husband rushed Goode.
"Goode stabs Byers and — beginner's luck — he cuts his aorta right open," Deegan says. Byers quickly died.
Deegan recalls he got the call at 1 a.m. He knew this would be a high-profile case and expected much media coverage, as Byers was one of their own.
"We were fortunate enough that we had this guy on tape inside the store," says Det. Tim Bass in the Philadelphia PD homicide division.
Bass and Deegan transported the tape to district attorney's office, where they spent nine hours going over it.
"The tape was excellent," Deegan recalls. "Goode walks in the store, looks up at the camera, glances around and finally gets a soda. We ended up getting that soda from out front and got a fingerprint off it."
"He was not in the store immediately prior to or after the murder, so we had to go back through the tape of the evening," Bass says. "The clerk thought something was up with this guy, so we viewed the tape with her and she said 'That's him.' "
In this case, the tape was very high quality. They had a good image of Goode looking directly at the camera. Deegan notes it is rare for a store to have such high-quality equipment. Bass adds this business maintained a tape library and only recorded over a videotape every 30 days, as opposed to some stores that use the same tape over and over.
"We just kept looking until we got the right picture and then used the media as our ally," Bass recalls.
The homicide detectives released the photos to the news media. At 6 a.m. the following day, the murder of the columnist was the lead story and detectives started receiving calls. The first tip was not the right one, but the very next tip came from the killer's mother-in-law.
She gave detectives his name and address, which was an apartment complex two neighborhoods away from the murder scene.
"He had no criminal record in Philadelphia and only minor offenses in Texas," Bass notes.
When questioned, the suspect told detectives his wife had been on his case to make more money and he felt he could increase his income by robbing people.
"This was his career path," Bass says dryly.
Bass adds this is a prime example of when better-than-average technology really helped out. He notes they would have had a hard time finding Goode without the tape, as he had moved to Philadelphia from Texas a month before and mostly stayed inside his apartment.
"The camera aided us in this investigation," Bass emphasizes. "Goode pled guilty to first-degree murder and there is no doubt in my mind that the camera played a big part."
Deegan says in this case, not only was technology available, but that it was good technology. He believes greater use of surveillance cameras will absolutely aid in homicide investigations — provided the technology is high. In some cases, Deegan says such cameras are the detectives' eyes on the street.
"I hope we're going to get the better-quality cameras, because when we lock someone up for homicide, they are either going to spend the rest of their life in prison or are executed," he says.
Putting an eye on crime
The good news for Deegan and his fellow officers is that Philadelphians voted 4 to 1 last May in a referendum to amend the Philadelphia Home Charter and permit the installation of public surveillance cameras. The city has instituted a pilot program, installing the first crime-surveillance camera at the intersection of 7th Street and Girard Avenue.
Baltimore, Chicago, Wilmington and most recently, New York City, have all installed public surveillance cameras and the cities are claming varying degrees of success.
"Our program will be high visibility, high profile, as we want everything right out in the open," says John Gaittens, the Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner for Administration and Technology.
Gaittens goes on to say the department has installed signs that explain the area is under video surveillance. They have instituted policies and procedures that ensure cameras don't record above street level. The pan-tilt-zoom cameras are at street level and placed so they can't view anything on the second floor and above.
"We don't want to be invasive and we don't look into windows," he says. "Basically, the cameras are set to see what you would see if you were standing on the street."
In Pennsylvania, the police don't use sound recording, only video imaging, as they would be subject to wiretap provisions and require a warrant if recordings were utilized. Although the ACLU has reservations about the applications of the cameras, there is little opposition to the program.
Gaittens says there are three basic things the surveillance cameras can accomplish. The first is they serve as a crime deterrent. Second, cameras aid police response, as they are linked to police dispatch. When dispatch gets a job on the screen that pertains to an auto accident with injuries or a fight on the highway, for instance, where the two pilot cameras are located, they can contact the people monitoring the cameras and ask what they see.
They may report the highway is clear, but can see down the block at 6th and Girard and there appears to be an auto accident at that location. So even before an officer has been dispatched, there is confirmation of an incident and this helps dispatchers send a patrol car to the right location.
Philadelphia has assigned both uniform personnel and civilians to monitor the cameras in police headquarters. The personnel monitoring the camera might see something that dispatch is not aware of, so they will contact the console directly and report the situation and send a car to the scene. They also will be able update the officer as he or she is enroute.
The third aspect is evidentiary value for cases where crimes have already been committed, such as the McDermott and Byers homicide cases. With the cameras, the police have a video record of what happened.
"In many cases, the camera tends to be the best witness," Gaittens says. "The tape won't be intimidated and change its story."
Gaittens points out the proper utilization of cameras will be very beneficial. It's not a magical cure, he warns, but a very good tool. And, as the technology improves and the pixilation increases, the clarity of the photo will get better. He says Philadelphia plans to increase its pilot program to include a couple of schools and will deploy mobile cameras, called Pods, in a couple of high-crime neighborhoods.
Philadelphia is utilizing this technology as a "city" project rather than a police department initiative. The project is being organized through the city managing director's office. There are different city departments involved, including police, public property and streets. The plan is to use the cameras not only for law enforcement, but also major events, crowd control, and traffic and homeland security issues. The city officials see many potential uses for the cameras. Funding may come in part from homeland security and narcotics forfeiture programs.
Planning for the future
The committee recently sent out a request for information on the Internet, asking vendors to send recommendations. It asked such questions as: How would you set up a surveillance program? What are the best practices? It hoped to learn from other people's mistakes. Several vendors responded to the questionnaire.
The city now has a request for proposal on the Web. Vendors have offered diagrams of how they would set up the program, laying out what kind of technology would be used, type of software, monitoring, and all the technical aspects of the program, such as the pixilation, zoom factor, recording and archiving. It has have documented how it will integrate the system and most important, how much the system will cost.
"The cameras themselves are not all that expensive," Gaittens explains. "But when you talk about running fiber lines, the costs go up. Fiber is expensive — $10 a foot."
The city faces installing several hundred miles of fiber and the question remains where they are going to hang it. Once the committee reviews vendor packages, they plan to select a system for Philadelphia.
"We sent individuals to Baltimore and Wilmington to look at their surveillance camera programs and had people visit from Chicago to give presentations on their programs," Gaittens says. "We visited Temple, Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania and looked at their surveillance programs. These universities in the city have had cameras for many years."
Gaittens notes the department has already seen some initial success from its pilot cameras. The police have made a dozen arrests based on what the people monitoring the cameras have observed. People tend to forget the cameras are there — they get desensitized to them, Gaitten points out. After a couple days, the cameras blend into the background and then people do what they do normally. Also, many street criminals don't read the signs noting the cameras are there.
But even with such success, Gaitten warns it's no panacea.
"A camera will never replace a cop," he says. "Cameras are an effective tool, but you'll still need someone to monitor the camera and you'll still need the police officer in the car to respond."
Paul Davis is a Philadelphia-based writer who covers crime and terrorism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org