Should I Register My Surveillance Camera with the Police?
Programs throughout the country allow residents to register
surveillance cameras with police, but each is slightly different
Giving security camera footage to the police is increasingly common, and camera registration efforts could dramatically expand the evidence available to police departments. A 2016 survey by IPVM, an analysis firm specializing in video surveillance, estimates that roughly 20% of American homes have security cameras. Local news outlets report that officials in Kennesaw (GA), York County (VA), Marion (IA), and Danville (IL) have asked residents to register surveillance cameras with police—just in the last 30 days.
There’s good reason for the popularity of these programs. Police have long used private footage to solve crimes and make their communities safer. Still, some citizens don’t feel comfortable with—or don’t understand—what registration involves. And some recent news headlines have highlighted how large-scale partnerships between camera companies and police departments may raise concerns about privacy and government power.
In this article, we review the benefits and considerations of registering security cameras with police. We explain how the process works, how it varies from place to place, how it helps law enforcement, and why some citizens might choose to opt-out.
Having a registered security camera—and giving security
camera footage to police—can make it easier to solve crimes
A city council candidate in West Milford, New Jersey was charged with a hit-and-run only after a private security camera caught the event taking place. Over in the state’s Winslow Township, footage volunteered by a resident provided police’s only lead on a suspect who robbed a 78-year-old man at knifepoint. And a prolific burglar in Wayne Township (also in New Jersey) was finally arrested after a home security camera caught him red-handed.
There’s no doubt that cameras enhance security. By providing ample and accessible evidence, households and businesses with security cameras can make police more efficient and effective. Cameras also act as a deterrent: in a 2011 study of three major American cities, the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center found that public security cameras are generally effective at reducing crime rates in monitored areas.
And there’s more: in an interview with the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, a convicted criminal turned security-system owner stated that the proliferation of security cameras helped him break his criminal habits. “In the past I got locked up for [breaking into cars], but I would never do that now… There are so many cameras out there. It makes it a lot harder to get away with now.”
Johanna Canaday, a criminal intelligence and analysis manager for the Fremont Police Department, says that police use of personal surveillance cameras could usher in an era of “community-enhanced intelligence led policing.”
Home security products are becoming more affordable—and police are eager to give citizens a role in keeping their communities safe. Fremont’s experience has been promising, says Canady, whose department found that residential burglaries were 30% more likely to be solved with the aid of video footage. And elsewhere, some residents have enthusiastically embraced the trend: an Oakland, California neighborhood installed home security cameras that watch over nearly 90 homes.
What happens when consumers register surveillance cameras
Each police department has its own process for registering a security camera. In an earlier article, we specifically looked at camera registration in California—but here’s what’s true in most cases across the country:
Registration is voluntary; consumers must opt-in before police are notified that a camera exists
Police departments can’t remotely view footage—or look at recordings without consent
There’s no legal requirement to share footage (without a subpoena), and participants can withdraw at any time
Take, for instance, Buffalo, New York’s SafeCam program. The Buffalo Police Department asks citizens with security cameras to provide their location, contact information, and camera specifications. Then, staff from the police department visit the participant to confirm that the camera is installed and placed as described. If a crime takes place near these registered homes or businesses, police can request to view and copy images that might aid their investigations or serve as evidence in future court proceedings.
Watch as a member of the Valparaiso, Indiana Police Department shows how police use this sort of information:
Buffalo isn’t the only city to ask citizens to register surveillance cameras with police. Kenmore (NY), Philadelphia (PA), and Miami Gardens (FL) each have their own version of SafeCam, and Sacramento (CA) has a similar program called Sheriff’s Electronic Eye (SEE).
Police departments have promoted these camera registration programs as important public safety tools. Giving security camera footage to law enforcement can make it significantly easier to identify suspects and reconstruct crime scenes. While purchasers typically have their security in mind—protecting, for example, against package thieves—outdoor cameras can contribute to the safety of a neighborhood as a whole.
In fact, the Philadelphia Police Department says that footage provided through its camera registration program has led to 270 additional arrests over three years. And some agencies are so enthusiastic about private surveillance partnerships that they provide rebates to residents who install and register security cameras with local police.
While participation is voluntary, privacy concerns may be an
issue for those who register a security camera with the police
There are times when consumers may not want police to have access to their cameras (even if they’re pointed largely or exclusively at roadways or other public areas). While registering a security camera with the police is billed as voluntary, participants who don't feel like giving the footage to law enforcement may be issued a search warrant.
And not all of these programs work the same way—even if they use the same name. Miami Gardens’ version of SafeCam, for example, charges participants a fee of $25 per month. The program also gives law enforcement warrantless access to cameras online, both in real-time and after. Some citizens might find that prospect a bit eerie: one frequently asked question, according to the center than runs Miami Gardens’ SafeCam program, reads “Is the Real Time Crime Center like Big Brother, always watching us?”
Recent news events have only heightened those privacy concerns. Drew Harwell, an artificial intelligence reporter for The Washington Post, writes that an Amazon-owned security firm has partnered with more than 400 police departments. On their face, these partnerships resemble many SafeCam programs: Users may decline requests for footage. Police officers can’t view live camera feeds.
But while officials can’t send requests to specific users—or see who declined to share footage—the company has previously allowed law enforcement agencies to view maps that give a general idea of where their cameras are installed. Some officers have shown up at known users’ doorsteps even after a request has been denied. And users may end up sharing more than they’d like: CNET reports that those who consent to a request will share all footage within the period the agency specifies.
There is promise in these programs, however. Effectively implemented, they can indeed make communities much safer. But as with many public law enforcement and technology issues, navigating the competing priorities of security and privacy must be a top priority.
Local policies and personal preferences ultimately decide
when it’s best to register security cameras
Those who feel comfortable sharing footage may do law enforcement—and their communities—an important service. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, less than 13% of burglaries in 2015 were solved (to say nothing of other crimes). Giving security camera footage to police can significantly improve those odds.
But privacy along with safety is at the core of home security. And while registering a surveillance camera with police is both helpful and voluntary, consumers could find themselves pressured or legally compelled to share footage. It’s worth taking a close look at your camera—and local law enforcement’s registration program and policies—before making a decision that’s right for you and your community.
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