surveillance cameras

How thousands of private cameras help Philly police solve crimes (and maybe you should sign up)

Late on Tuesday, four men armed with a shotgun approached a home in Mt. Airy and tried to break in. After several failed attempts to get in the home through a door, the men ran away — but not before one of them looked directly at the homeowner’s surveillance camera.

Now, crystal clear images of them are circulating on social media and through community circles. And police say investigators on the case have already gotten a number of tips from people saying they recognize the men. Here’s how clear the images came out:

In a nutshell, that’s why police think you should probably install some cameras.

The beginning of August will mark four years since Philadelphia’s SafeCam program officially went into effect. The program lets residents and businesses register private security cameras with the police department if they’re interested in helping to solve, and possibly deter, crimes in their area.

Philadelphia Police Lt. John Stanford told Billy Penn that nearly 1,000 registrants have signed up for the SafeCam program, which amounts to 3,300 exterior cameras and 2,800 interior ones. Currently, they’re most common among businesses — through the SafeCam program, owners get a rebate from the city.

In order to encourage installation among commercially-owned properties, SafeCam offers a reimbursement to businesses worth half the price of installation up to $3,000. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has said he’s exploring introducing legislation that would expand that rebate to residential homeowners. A spokesman for Johnson said the councilman is still considering introducing such legislation next session.

But the installation of security cameras in private residences, especially those who are registered with the SafeCam program, is already increasing.

How’s it work? First, you’ve got to install the cameras, and there are a few ways to go about this. Stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy have the DIY options, but there are also electricians in the city who specialize in the installation and can often get lower prices on the cameras themselves.

Gary Barker, an electrician from Northeast Philly, said he’s installed 50 or 60 surveillance systems on just homes in the past three months. That doesn’t include work he does for bars and restaurants that want the systems, too.

At base, he offers the installation of a system that costs $299 plus the costs of labor. That gets you four security cameras that hook up to your TV and cell phone — so you can see what’s going on outside your home from inside your home at all times. They save footage for about a week. But many camera owners upgrade the number of cameras they have or the features they come with, sometimes so that the cameras can store footage for a month or longer.

From there, residents can go online and register their cameras with the SafeCam program, but all this does is simply alert police that a system is in place at a certain location. Unlike Baltimore’s CitiWatch program, police don’t have direct access to the footage on the cameras.

So let’s say a crime happens. Police have a real-time crime center located in the city that not only taps into public cameras put up by the city and SEPTA, but also keeps a running list of registrants in the SafeCam program. If a shooting occurs on a block and the police locate a private security camera in the area, they contact the person and ask if they’re willing to provide footage.

But if the owner thinks “the block is hot” and fears retribution of police coming to their home — or for any other reason — they aren’t at all required or obligated to turn the footage over to police during their investigation.

“We can’t kick their door in and force them to give us the video,” Stanford said. “But for the most part, people are willing to cooperate.”

From there, if the homeowner agrees, an investigator comes to the home, downloads the footage, and is on their way. Stanford said the cameras can be invaluable — last year, the Department released 630 videos to the public that led to 130 arrests and hundreds of cleared investigations.

“This is not to replace our investigators or replace the job they do and interviewing witnesses,” Stanford said. “It just enhances their capabilities. It allows them to hear and see incidents they wouldn’t normally.”

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