Sitting one short county removed from New York City, Suffolk County is home to about 1.3 million people, with the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) having roughly 3,500 people – of that is 2,500 sworn members (the 14th largest municipal PD in the country, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics paper “Local Police Departments, 2013: Personnel, Policies, and Practices” May 2015).
And, oh, Suffolk County is also home to Long Island. It’s safe to say its well-trafficked area.
With such an active population, utilizing video camera technology can be a boon for any investigation. But knowing the locations of available video cameras around your community is entirely another issue. Agencies around the country have recognized the advantage of having this information and developed their own registration programs. Oftentimes, engaging citizens to even register the private surveillance cameras mounted on their doorstep.
I spoke with Suffolk County Chief of Department Stuart Cameron about the Suffolk Co. (New York) Police Department’s Camera Registration Program. The SCPD, he explains, have two types of camera registration programs. One comes from officers doing a video canvas of an area in an event of a crime. “We would go out in that area and see if there would be any municipal or private cameras that may be recorded,” says Cameron. “We try and download those videos to see if there would be any relevant video reference to that crime.”
Suffolk County, NY is home to:
- 1.3 million people (estimated)
- 2,500 sworn members (estimated)
- 259,716 students*
- 18,941 full time teachers*
- 347 public schools*
*Data captured August 1, 2019 from www.newyorkschools.com/counties/suffolk.html.
In order to streamline this process, the SCPD has asked its citizens that have video cameras to register them. Knowing the location of cameras raises the probability of finding surveillance of the crime or footage of suspects entering or fleeing the scene.
It’s not just CCTV from the local shopping center, the SCPD opened its registration program to include the home surveillance cameras as well. “We’ve been able to solve crime using doorbell cameras,” he says. “The quality of cameras is phenomenal. [They] are high enough resolution that if you catch the side of a car going by you might be able to determine the make and model of the car.”
On-going for about three years, SCPD’s online form is simple. It asks for the person’s name (first and last), business name, and address of the camera. “Cameras are getting added all the time,” says Cameron. With the population size of his department takes care of, he estimates there could be thousands, if not tens of thousands of cameras in the county.
The Suffolk County PD set up SCPD SHIELD as a franchise within NYPD SHIELD, an ongoing umbrella program for decades that focuses its efforts in private security and counter-terrorism initiatives through a “two-way” street of information sharing.
Acting as a portal for their community, the SCPD posts free training opportunities for businesses and organizations in the county. Currently, the site is featuring seminars covering active shooters for businesses, active shooters for religious centers, and basic bleeding control methods. The site also connects users to the department’s camera registration program as part of their Counter-Terrorism & Anti-Crime Initiatives.
One advantage, Cameron explains, of partnering with NYPD SHIELD as a franchise is the ability to share intelligence analysts at the SCPD’s quarterly conferences throughout the year. “One of the things we did at one of our SHIELD conferences, I had one of my detectives that works with me in Criminal Intelligence come in and talk about video cameras in general. How to install them, where you might want to put them, various lighting considerations, different quality of cameras. Because it’s very frustrating when you have video of a crime being committed but the quality of the video is such that it’s almost useless to you. You might think that ‘hey, I think I’ll aim it at the light’ but for everything will be everything will be captured at night will be well lit, but in fact, you’re blinding the camera because it’s pointing too much at the light. He drew and showed different examples of videos that he had would highlight why that was a very bad idea.”
Video feed and camera access
As Cameron came into Chief of Department, one of the commands he kept was the Homeland Security and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, which is spearheading the camera access program. From a three-phase project funded by a Homeland Security grant, the department had built an emergency operations center. They lost funding for phases two and three but not before having built a video wall and installed hardware in an area in police headquarters. There it sat idle. “We were looking to expand on the capability of Criminal Intelligence and though that this would be a great opportunity to convert this facility into a real-time-crime center (RTCC),” says Cameron.
Cameron wanted to unsilo the available technology to all commands and leverage one technology against another. He explains, “The more video that we have connection to, the more capability we have to solve crimes.”
The RTCC also provides access to other department software systems, such as its LexisNexis Accurint solution which allows investigators to search global public records and department databases. Cameron offered grant money for other departments in Suffolk county with a catch: they had to also connect their databases to Accurint. Part of this technological connection was the feed to municipal video cameras. The first to join was Port Jefferson, who was able to give them web remote access. After working with them further the SCPD RTCC received full control with the ability to manipulate the pan/tilt/zoom cameras as well as capture the surveillance video. For Cameron, it makes sense for a village or town to provide access to SCPD, “[now] they have two people looking at them. Two people trying to improve public safety. Two people trying to reduce crime in the area.”
With 65 school districts and two Boards of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES), the SCPD started to develop a video sharing agreement to get access to the cameras in schools, aptly named “SHARE.” Though, it isn’t meant to be a live feed to be big brother watching what’s happening in the halls. “The only time we would access the camera is if there was a report of a life or death situation, such as an active shooter in the school,” explains Cameron. Accessing the cameras would assist law enforcement with situational awareness, potentially capture some identification information, and possibly track the suspect’s location to better coordinate response. The school-to-RTCC connection might even allow analysts at the RTCC to take a photo of the suspect to send out to first responders.
The capabilities of SHARE also transfer further than having a watchful eye – it also allows SCPD to connect to a school’s remotely electronic door controls (should the location be outfitted with them). Coordinating what they can see with cameras, the RTCC would be able to direct officers to the nearest exterior door to where the suspect would be and open it.
Even further, SHARE also allows SCPD’s RTCC control over a school's public address system. According to Cameron, after the Parkland Attack, students said they didn’t know who was going to come through the door of the classroom. Whether it was going to be the attacker with a gun or the police to come to the door for rescue. “By having the ability to control and speak through the public address system in the school, we could update people that are sheltered in place with the progress,” says Cameron. Examples include various reassuring messages like “we’re on scene,” “we believe the shooter has been neutralized,” and “stay where you are.”
As far as privacy goes, the SCPD has no intention of looking at schools on a routine basis. An accountability process was created so that the school would know the department has accessed the cameras. The department worked with a law firm representing the schools to make sure everyone involved was comfortable with the video-sharing agreement.
“I think anybody in law enforcement knows the value of photos and videos,” says Cameron. Although, if your agency doesn’t have the grant monies to start up a grand facility as SCPD’s, Cameron suggests starting small and using the technologies you might already have available. “You don’t have to build out a facility as we have…you probably only need a computer server and a monitor. Start small and work your way up.”