District of Columbia police are increasingly relying on video footage pulled from the city's network of surveillance cameras in criminal investigations, as officers identify more effective ways to deploy the devices and detectives find new uses for them.
Investigators retrieved video from the Metropolitan Police Department's 123 closed-circuit television cameras and the district's network of red light and Department of Transportation cameras 931 times in fiscal 2012 — an increase of 15 percent over the previous year, according to police department data. Police pulled video 796 times in fiscal 2011 and sought it 722 times in 2010.
Since neighborhood crime cameras were first installed in the district in 2006, they have become standard investigative tools, and police detectives are relying on them more than ever.
"It's the first thing we look for," said 5th District Cmdr. Andrew Solberg, who has studied the placement of cameras in his district to optimize their use. "If you go to a crime scene, all the officers and crime scene detectives will be looking up to find out if there is a camera nearby."
District laws limit police authority to live-monitor video feeds, and detectives must request downloads from individual cameras for use in investigations. But as police become more familiar with the technology, officers are reconsidering how footage can help a case. No longer are police searching just for video that captures a crime, said Cmdr. James Crane, head of the department's Tactical Information Division, which oversees the use of the cameras. Investigators now also seek out video that might show the getaway or disprove a suspect's alibi.
"We see for investigations not only are they checking the scene of the crime but also for an alibi in another part of town to see if it supports the investigation,"
Crane said. "For one homicide in upper Northwest, one detective asked for 36 hours of footage from a Southeast location."
The upward trend in camera usage in the District seems poised to continue.
From January through May, police retrieved video 528 times, putting them on pace to pull surveillance footage from the network of cameras more than 1,200 times this calendar year. The majority of the footage — 379 videos — was retrieved from neighborhood crime cameras, while 149 videos came from transportation department cameras, Crane said. The data provided by police do not include videos retrieved from private cameras, such as those in businesses or apartment complexes, but can include multiple videos pulled for one investigation.
Police said the department tracks crime in the areas around the cameras to determine whether they are providing useful evidence.
Based on a recent study of the 10 crime cameras in the Northeast neighborhood of Trinidad, the department in April decided to move two cameras to different locations, Solberg said.
"We did an overlay of where the cameras are and where the crime is, and said, 'Are these two items matched up?'" Solberg said of the first assessment of cameras in the 5th District.
The department's study showed that crimes no longer were occurring near two of the 10 cameras. Whether crime was displaced to other areas of the neighborhood or was reduced altogether remains uncertain, Solberg said. But based on the results, he said, the cameras should be checked against crime statistics more often and moved as needed.
A camera more recently was moved from North Capitol and Seaton Place Northeast to Fourth and Bryant streets Northeast in the Edgewood neighborhood, which is a focus of the police department's summer crime initiative.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, after which surveillance video was used to identify two suspects, lawmakers and law enforcement officials across the country have called for broader use of cameras. In the district, Councilmember Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, is among those who supports expanding the Metropolitan Police Department's access to the devices.
Lawmakers put into place restrictions when the cameras were first introduced that prevent police from regularly live-monitoring video feeds — unlike other cities such as Baltimore and Chicago — meaning the district's cameras have not been as useful in reducing crime, according to a 2011 Urban Institute study. The four-year study concluded that "cameras alone did not appear to have an effect on crime in the district."
Pointing to an arrest made several days after a March drive-by shooting on North Capitol Street in which a suspect was identified through traffic-camera footage that caught his car speeding away from the scene, Wells said he hopes expansion of the department's ability to live-monitor crime cameras will mean police catch criminals more quickly.
"If they had been able to use the camera in real time, they would have been able to catch them right off the bat," said Wells, a candidate for mayor.
Wells also would like to see police use "hot spot" crime cameras that, like mobile speed cameras, could be deployed quickly to problem areas such as a street that has experienced a rash of break-ins or car thefts.
But expanding access and use of the cameras amounts to "mission creep," diverting from the program's original intentions, said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital.
"Mission creep is what happens," he said. "As cameras become more and more ubiquitous, the government will be able to use this data flow to sort of keep tabs on where everybody is all the time."
Given the privacy concerns raised by residents and advocacy groups when cameras were first deployed, expansion of camera use may face opposition, and Wells said he is seeking input from groups such as the ACLU on any forthcoming legislation.
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