Keeping watch
Local authorities say they are routinely looking for video from home-based cameras to help them solve crime. Vanessa Ochavillo / Review

In late January, a stranger walked up to Bob Durand’s truck that he had parked right in front of his El Granada home. After breaking into the car and stealing property worth $1,300, the thief drove away in a four-door sedan.

All of this was captured on a video camera.

As more residents on the Coastside install home security systems, which are now widely available and affordable, the increased surveillance in neighborhoods is helping local law enforcement fight crime.

Last year, a home security camera helped San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputies identify the man who stole the car of another Coastsider. The footage showed a face clearly; he was the victim’s neighbor. Deputies made an arrest and the case was closed.

Rosemerry Blankswade, public information officer for the county Sheriff’s Office, said criminal investigations have benefited from the widespread adoption of home surveillance systems in the county.

“Even if it’s a camera down the street that catches a suspect’s car leaving, the timeframe alone helps,” Blankswade said. “We appreciate any neighbors or businesses that have surveillance footage and that are kind enough to share it with us.”

In some cases, video cameras capture identifying information, like a license plate or the image of a suspect’s face. But that isn’t always the case. In the last few months, five of at least six cases where deputies accessed surveillance footage did not lead to a suspect.

One deputy’s report stated, “Surveillance footage was located, however the suspects face was covered and turned away from the camera.”

The ubiquity of home surveillance systems has critics like the American Civil Liberties Union concerned, especially as more sophisticated systems like the doorbell camera Ring, an Amazon subsidiary, ease law enforcement’s access to footage. The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office is one of more than 400 agencies that partner with Ring.

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at ACLU, has said that “pervasive private cameras do erode our privacy” at a time when crime rates are at a historic low.

After Durand realized his truck was broken into, he reviewed the footage from the NextGen camera he installed in the front of his home. The thief’s headlights, combined with the camera’s low resolution, obscured much of the scene. He has since invested in higher resolution Google Nest cameras, even though he acknowledged how rarely perpetrators are caught in the act.

“The cameras are, really, only good for prosecution after the fact,” Durand said. “Unless you’re a professional who’s always watching the camera.”

Blankswade said Sheriff’s deputies are able to access footage from cameras in a few different ways. With the ubiquity of cameras, Blankswade said investigators now look for homes with security cameras when they canvas a neighborhood. If people agree to share their camera footage, deputies will ask them to transfer the electronic files on a thumb drive or ask them to upload it to evidence.com, an Axon-owned, cloud-based platform popular among law enforcement for managing digital files.

For the Amazon-owned Ring systems, access is a little less clear. In its policy, Ring says it releases homeowner video footage with the owner’s consent or in response to a valid search warrant. It is just one of the brands and systems that Coastsiders use.

Durand said he agreed to upload the video of the theft to evidence.com when deputies asked because it was a crime that happened right in front of his house.

“If someone came to me because they need something on the area or my neighbors, I might be more reluctant,” Durand said.

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