I was the police commander in the 3rd District (Silver Spring) of Montgomery County, Md., a growing jurisdiction with nearly 1 million people and crime that often comes from across our borders with the District of Columbia and Prince George s County. In an effort to do everything I could to optimize what evidence we have when experiencing trend crimes, some of which are violent with an offender population used to exploiting jurisdictional lines on a daily or even hourly basis, members of my staff and I launched our Video Surveillance Best Practices project. As we work with our community to support one of the most successful community revitalizations in the country, we must think about how we do our job in new ways to maximize our effectiveness.
Improving video surveillance, a very important investigative tool, is one way to do that. Frustrated by the lack of useable video surveillance images, we began to think about what we were really looking for when it came to effective leads to identify suspects.
Many of our local businesses and organizations used video surveillance, but unfortunately, when we attempted to obtain the images, we frequently ran into problems. For instance, a camera captured a clear image of a suspect, but because the business had mounted the camera so high above the area, all we could see was the top of the suspect s head. Perhaps we could determine sex and race from this angle, but when it came to depicting individual features that could lead to the criminal s arrest, we were left disappointed. Or, maybe a camera captured a good image, but no one at the store knew how to download it. Or, they could play it back, but the VHS video tape was so overused, nothing but hazy and grainy images were left.
After noting several common mistakes and repeated poor practices, we decided to sit down and craft a video surveillance Best Practice set of guidelines we could use to educate our commercial community. Working with local businesses that were experienced and thoughtful in how they deployed their systems, such as the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring, we brainstormed what the best systems and practices had in common.
Before long we were ready to launch our program. The best-practice principles we identified included the following:
To obtain high-quality detail of facial features (like ATM photos), cameras should be positioned at head and shoulder height;
Regularly train staff in the equipment operation, and ensure staff working all shifts know how to use it;
Upgrade to digital video if at all possible so that you can burn a CD or DVD with the needed images;
Focus cameras on entryways where subjects are likely to remain unmasked before committing their crimes;
Don't forget to use video in your parking lots where a camera trained in the right direction may record a vehicle description or even a license plate; and
Your cameras may capture a suspect who, instead of hitting your store, commits a crime at a neighboring store, so make sure the system has capacity to store images for at least a month.
After taking this campaign to the media, we received some attention due to the interest in this topic and how prevalent video surveillance is becoming. We also learned the federal government would provide tax credits for businesses that wanted to upgrade their security, which they could use to defray the cost of video surveillance. And, I required my officers to review and complete a Video Surveillance Security Survey at each business victimized by burglary or robbery. In our central business district, we sent our officers door-to-door to complete these surveys for every business in the commercial area. (See the survey on this page.)
We still ran into some obstacles. The membership of one trade association that addressed banking concerns would obviously benefit from this program, but the group essentially ignored our efforts to educate them with this important message. However, in sum, our efforts have paid off. In bringing such attention to this extremely valuable tool to reduce crime and improve public safety, we have caused numerous businesses to improve their camera systems. More importantly, our investigators have a greater likelihood of finding video that will help them identify and apprehend suspects.
In the war on crime, technology can provide a significant impact on how we do our jobs, and we must learn to leverage it to our advantage on behalf of the citizens we serve. If you would like more information about this program, please call me at 240/773-5321 or e-mail me at email@example.com.
Video Surveillance Survey
Emergency contact (After hours) (name, telephone number)
Alarm system? Yes/No
Initial survey date
Date Name & ID#
Date Name & ID#:
Date Name & ID#:
Date Name & ID#:
Date Name & ID#:
1) What kind of system is in use? VHS digital
2) How many cameras are in use?
3) How old is the equipment?
1) How often are the camera's tapes changed?
2) Who changes the tapes?
3) When was the last time all employees were trained to use it?
4) Is enough lighting left on to capture images?
5) How long are the images stored? (suggest 30 days)
Where are the cameras placed?
Is a camera placed to capture subjects entering the store? Yes/No
Is a camera placed to see suspects or to monitor employees? Suspects Employees
Is there any camera in place to observe the parking lot? (recommend) Yes/No
Captain Mitch Cunningham is a 21-year veteran of law enforcement who has had assignments in narcotics, tactical street crimes, investigations and hostage negotiations. He has supervised various units, including auto theft and property crimes, and commanded the 3rd District. He presently is the director of the Information Support and Analysis Division for the Montgomery County Department of Police.