One of the first things Wentzville detectives did when 13 cars were broken into one recent night was look for residential surveillance cameras — and they didn’t have to leave police headquarters.
They turned to a growing database they created about a year ago that tracks video security systems that homeowners have registered with the department. When they saw a few residents in the neighborhood had cameras, they contacted those homeowners to check footage from the previous night.
Within hours, the police had images, a more accurate time frame for when the crimes happened, a vehicle description, a number of suspects and a map of their steps through the neighborhood that officers could retrace and search for evidence.
Though the strategy on that particular series of break-ins has not led to an arrest, police say it illustrates how the spread of affordable home surveillance systems has shifted the way they do business. Camera systems once priced only for the business market are now giving police an edge when it comes to investigating crime in neighborhoods.
Even if footage fails to capture a criminal’s face, it can help police pinpoint the time of a crime, retrace a criminal’s steps or get vehicle descriptions and license plate numbers. Immediate knowledge about where cameras are posted saves time and narrows the typical neighborhood canvas for officers, Wentzville Chief Kurt Frisz said.
“It takes the neighborhood watch concept to a whole new level as far as using technology,” Frisz said. “Any department would be wise to set up a program like this. These resources are out there that you might as well tap.”
In Florissant, one man had an alert sent to his cellphone when a camera detected motion in his backyard while he was at work. He called police and emailed them an image of a man breaking into his shed. Armed with the description, police arrested a suspect on the same street, solving one burglary and preventing another, according to Florissant Public Information Officer Steve Michael.
Demand for smart home security systems is expected to increase 26 percent in the U.S. in 2018, with $3.4 billion in sales by the end of this year and $4.8 billion by 2025, according to Freedonia, a Cleveland-based industry research firm. Some insurance companies offer discounts to homeowners who put up cameras.
In Florissant, Michael said, residents are outfitting their homes for $200.
“It’s kind of trending right now to put cameras on your house, and it’s just a bonus to have that footage and coverage help the local police department,” he said.
No sharing required
Registering cameras with the police is voluntary, and even after registration, residents are not required to share footage with police. In addition, police do not have access to the cameras to watch crime, or life, as it happens — aspects lauded by civil liberties groups in communities that have registration programs across the country.
In addition to Wentzville and Florissant, police in O’Fallon, Ill., offer a camera registration program. Nationwide, the programs have popped up in Chicago, California, Texas, Oregon and other states.
Camera footage may be a deterrent to future crimes, police say.
That’s because availability of video footage and still images is leading to some additional media coverage and social media publicity of minor crimes. When criminals see themselves or others caught on camera, it could make them think twice about returning to a neighborhood known for having cameras.
Even police departments that don’t have registration programs have posted footage and images from private cameras. In St. Louis, one car break-in victim mounted a camera from her rear-view mirror capturing clear images of the burglars.
In St. Louis County, police posted footage from a camera that captured a man “who may be attempting to burglarize homes.”
At least one company invites camera owners to register their cameras online, even if their police department doesn’t have a registration program. The company will notify local departments about interest in doing so.
But some investigators and police experts caution that public sharing of camera footage quickly after crimes could possibly taint witness testimony.
For that reason, Wentzville police have not posted footage of the 13 car break-ins and several other crimes in which residential cameras have played a key role in the investigations, said Jake Schmidt, public information officer.
He calls the release of such footage “crime commercials.”
“If we put a crime commercial out too soon, it could mess with the investigation, so we might hold it a little closer and work the investigation,” he said. “But if we get stuck and there is nothing else, we will put out a crime commercial.”
Drew Bass’ doorbell camera captured images of some of the thieves who broke into the 13 cars, including his, in Wentzville. His camera is registered with the police department, and detectives reviewed his footage. It helped police narrow the time frame, count the thieves and retrace their steps.
Bass said he was planning to spend $500 to equip the perimeter of his house with cameras, and wants to make them visible. He believes cameras will deter criminal activity. He should know. He said he used to break into cars.
“In the past I got locked up for doing the same thing, but I would never do that now,” he said. “There are so many cameras out there. It makes it a lot harder to get away with now.”
He’s hoping catching criminals in the act could lead to better outcomes for them.
“For me, it took getting caught. Had I not been caught, I wouldn’t be here right now.”