Police use home security cameras’ growing popularity to solve crime

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Hide caption Maxime Veron, head of Hardware Product Marketing for Nest, holds up a Nest Cam, a home surveillance camera, during a news conference on June 17, 2015, in San Francisco. [Eric Risberg/The Associated Press]

As home security systems and surveillance cameras surge in popularity, police are taking advantage of them to crack crimes and to pin down suspects’ identities.

Many people are installing security cameras in their homes to monitor their front doors, backyards and the insides of rooms. Home security cameras — often offering smart technology features like automatic alerts and the ability to connect to a phone — can run anywhere from below $100 for a single camera to a couple grand for professionally installed setups.

These systems have been crucial to some police investigations, allowing detectives to discover vital information like a suspects’ identities, license plate numbers and even their direction of travel.

“More and more people are looking to enhance their own security by some measure, and in many cases, monitored home security with a monthly fee may not be in everybody’s budget, but a onetime cost of a security camera oftentimes is,” said Lt. Brennan Matherne, of the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office. “Obviously the more money that is invested in the cameras and the technology used in them, the better the picture is for us. But frankly, any picture is better than none.”

Several recent high-profile investigations have developed suspects through home security videos, such a the recent murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, whose disappearance while on a run launched over a month-long search.

A neighbor turned footage over to police that showed her running in the neighborhood with a car tailing her. Investigators tracked down the suspect using the video to identify his car, and he later led them to her body that was hidden in a cornfield.

Likewise, law enforcement agencies in the Terrebonne and Lafourche area use home and business security cameras in their own investigations and may even post the footage on their social media accounts to call on the public to help make an identification. Officials said this can be an enormous help in an investigation, even if the cameras aren’t the best quality.

“Without a camera we’re reliant on a description, and without a witness we have no description,” Matherne said. “Something is better than nothing.”

Even without a direct shot of a suspect’s face, captured video can often be useful, Matherne said. The public may be able to make an identification — or at least a guess — if they can tell who the suspect is by their unique mannerisms and movements, he said.

Some law enforcement agencies have also tapped into the technology’s ability to aid investigations by creating databases of houses that have security cameras, so police know where they can quickly obtain valuable video when a crime is committed in the area. The databases work by having citizens opt into registering their cameras with the agency.

In Louisiana, the sheriffs’ offices in St. Charles and St. Bernard have both created surveillance camera databases, according to their websites, and the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office has been looking into setting one up.

However, law enforcement officials advise there are some things residents need to be aware of if they believe they have video that would be useful to a police investigation.

Most importantly, authorities say, don’t post the video before talking to police.

Matherne said investigators prefer to solve a crime without releasing the video if they can, because once footage is posted suspects may become aware they’ve been caught on tape and bolt, making it harder to arrest them.

“We don’t want the suspects to know everything that we have,” added Maj. Malcolm Wolfe, a spokesman for the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Further, if someone posts the video on his or her own social media accounts, it may lead to “possible retaliation” from the suspects captured in the footage, Wolfe said.

It’s best to not post suspected video of a crime unless someone has received clearance from the law enforcement agency, Matherne said.

“Social media is a great outlet to crowdsource and solve a crime,” Matherne said. “Let us do that.”

Staff Writer Natalie Schwartz can be reached at 857-2205 or nschwartz@houmatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter @nmschwartz23.

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