Police turning to private security footage to solve crimes

Police turning to private security footage to solve crimes

Screenshots of security footage taken during a July 2 incident at the Gateway Commons condo complex show police engaged in a standoff with Tyler Chandler (not pictured), a suspect in an earlier shooting of a Woonsocket police officer. According to Chief Thomas Oates, private security footage has become a more common part of police investigations as high-quality systems become cheaper and more readily available for businesses and homes.

WOONSOCKET – On the morning of July 2, residents of several neighborhoods on the city’s northern border held their breath as a tense situation unfolded at the intersection of Social and Elm Streets.

For several hours, police staked out a position in the parking lot of the Gateway Commons condo complex at 685 Social St. while Tyler Chandler, a suspect in the shooting of an officer earlier that day, engaged in a standoff with police. Chandler was eventually apprehended and charged with several counts of assault, and residents, who had been on lockdown during the incident, learned through news reports what had occurred just beneath their windows.

One individual, however, had a front-row view of what occurred in the parking lot that morning. Ilanna Ball, owner of Finest Real Estate, the company managing the condo complex, watched the entire incident unfold on her cell phone through a security camera aimed at the Gateway Commons parking lot. She and members of the homeowners’ association board, who also have access to the camera feed, were able to watch the footage in real time and share information with residents of the complex’s 45 units about what was happening outside. Later, she turned footage over to police as they continued their investigation of the incident.

“We could see a lot of police activity. We could see that certain cars had been shot. We could see the suspect, at one point, hiding between the cars,” she said.

The cameras, installed by Cox Business Security, are becoming increasingly common in homes and small businesses, allowing property owners to view live footage from any device or location through an app. According to Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Oates, collecting such footage from property owners has become a standard practice in most police investigations.

“In almost any investigation, especially if there’s ever a high profile incident as this was, part of the thing the officers do when walking that area is to see if any buildings, any houses, would have any type of video equipment. That’s a common practice now in almost every (case),” he said.

While police previously used surveillance footage when it was available, Oates said the quality and affordability of cameras in recent years have made security footage a more useful and common piece of evidence than in years past. His own home is equipped with a security camera system he purchased online for $350 that includes a motion detector and allows him to watch what is happening outside his home in real time.

“I would definitely say it’s certainly on the rise even within the past three to five years just because of, number one, the cheaper that it is, the more affordable it is, there’s more of it out there,” he said. “With the technology that’s there nowadays, it’s better quality (and) it’s even more useful.”

In addition to solving crimes once they happen, Oates said security cameras can serve as deterrents to prevent theft and other incidents. With the increased availability of inexpensive, high-quality systems, he said he occasionally comes across “mom and pop” stores that have access to better quality footage than banks that haven’t replaced their cameras in several years.

Footage can also be used for more than solving crimes. In the case of the July 2 shooting incident, police included the Gateway Commons footage in an evidence package forwarded to the state Attorney General’s Office to determine whether fire returned by responding officers against Chandler was justified. While Oates said he did not know exactly which pieces of evidence Deputy Attorney Gen. Gerald Coyne used in his review, Coyne ultimately determined, based on evidence, that the use of deadly force by officers was, in fact, justified.

For business owners, access to high-quality footage can help resolve incidents that might otherwise require investigation by police. Ball said she had previously used footage to address an issue of suspected illicit drug use in the building, while Kevin Kitson, owner of Chepachet Village Wine and Spirits, told The Breeze he fired two employees for theft since purchasing a similar camera system from Cox Business Security last year. Kitson added he has turned over footage of parking lot collisions to police on several occasions as they try to determine who was at fault in an accident.

“The pictures that we get, we can see the freckles on their nose,” said Kitson. “That’s the kind of systems that are out there.”

With increased surveillance comes concerns about privacy. Kitson said some employees have complained that they don’t like knowing he can check up on them from home, and Ball said several members of the homeowners’ association have argued that all residents of Gateway Commons, not just board members, should be able to access the footage. According to Oates, however, property owners or managers are within their rights to record and restrict camera footage of public spaces on their property.

“It’s completely legal to videotape anybody that’s in public space. I couldn’t go in there without just cause and just say to them, I’d like all your video footage from inside your place. They’re not compelled to give that to me,” he said, adding that in the case of an investigation, police could obtain a court order to retrieve footage from private security cameras.

The prevalence of cameras has changed the security landscape for both property owners and police, and Oates said he thinks the change is for the better and recommends cameras as a protective measure for both businesses and homes.

“I think it’s effective, absolutely,” he said. “Especially if it’s marked in cases in advance that people see it, it’s a deterrent. I think it’s an inexpensive security feature.”

Ball added that despite privacy concerns, the opinions of residents at 685 Social St. have been similar, especially since the July 2 incident.

“I think everybody is overwhelmingly positive about having the security cameras,” she said.