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Personal Security Camera Networks Offer Safer, More Connected Cities

Though only a small number of municipalities have efforts to register and utilize privately owned security cameras in their jurisdictions, the movement is growing.

When a crime occurs, the police investigate using any method at their disposal to solve it. This often includes leveraging the footage from privately owned security cameras — the kind so prevalent on the sides of businesses, homes and religious institutions.

Traditionally, this process meant investigators had to take note of all potential evidentiary treasure troves and knock on doors to request permission for viewing, or simply wait for the public to come forward with a recording. But a program in the nation’s capital is taking the guesswork out of the camera-locating process and getting significant traction within the community.

In mid-February, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a camera rebate program as a small part or the larger Safer, Stronger D.C. Initiative — and it's not the only jurisdiction to do so. Though currently only a small number of municipalities have similar efforts, the movement to include private security cameras in public-sector safety efforts is growing.

In D.C., the initiative offers a chance for individuals and businesses to recuperate some of the costs associated with installing security camera systems, and then registers those cameras with the Metropolitan Police Department.

During criminal investigations, police can easily look up the location of camera systems in the vicinity of a crime scene and quickly request footage from camera owners. It does not, however, give them direct access to the systems remotely, as some had feared.

Since the camera registration efforts went live, the nation’s capital city has seen substantial interest.

Program administrator Christopher Dyer said the effort has been a great success in the six weeks since it was announced. To date, more than 260 applications have been submitted and roughly $75,000 in grant money has been allocated.

Applications in targeted areas throughout the district, known as Police Service Areas (PSAs), are given priority grant funding. As of Aug. 1, 2016, residences outside of target will have the opportunity to receive funding as well.

Dyer said to qualify for grant money, cameras must be installed on the exterior of buildings and meet certain MPD specifications.  

“When a resident buys a camera, they then register it with MPD and complete the online application and within 45 business days we issue a check to cover some of the cost,” Dyer said of the D.C. program.

Despite criticism centered on similar programs throughout the country, the cameras are not monitored by police departments. Agencies are simply able to look up the surveillance systems and request access to the footage from the camera’s owner. 

Philadelphia, Pa., also has leveraged the readily available consumer systems in the aide of its own investigations under the moniker the SafeCam program, and Stockton, Calif.’s Citizen Observation Program (COP) plays a similar role.

A spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department said its version of the increasingly popular program, which was initially launched in 2011, leverages more than 1,370 registrants and close to 5,000 exterior cameras citywide, and has been a useful tool in the resolution of significant investigations. 

The spokesperson said rebates of $3,000 were offered by the Commerce Department as an incentive.

San Jose, Calif., also has started looking into a public registration tool, but officials with the police department told Government Technology that the program was in the “developmental stages” and could not be commented on.

In 2014, the program was suggested amid trepidation from the public, but the police department website now features a camera registration portal. At this time, it is unclear which portions of the project remain under development. 

Eyragon Eidam is the web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at