DETROIT – As doorbell cameras and other smart home surveillance systems become more common, experts are urging homeowners: Don't rush to post that video of the suspected burglar on your front porch until you've talked to police.
“We like to be notified first so we can start our investigation prior to the public starting their investigation," said Matt Koehn, public safety director in Berkley, Michigan.
An uptick in interest in home security systems, particularly affordable and easy-to-monitor doorbell cameras, and social media platforms, such as Nextdoor and Facebook, make it easier than ever for homeowners to share videos and photos of suspicious activities in their neighborhoods.
But authorities warn what gets posted on social media may not be accurate and can create unnecessary hysteria, particularly if an arrest has already been made that the public doesn't know about. And in some instances, people may be falsely accusing someone of a crime when that person had a legitimate reason for being on their porch.
Police Lt. Keith Spencer of Royal Oak, Michigan, said home security systems can “help tremendously,” with officers looking for video to review and glean information to aid in their investigations.
In February, for example, Michigan residents shared on Nextdoor a security camera photo of a suspected prowler in Royal Oak outside on a snowy day shortly after 4 a.m. Online discussion about the post included allegations that the man had burglarized a home in a nearby neighborhood and that local authorities were aware of him.
The post included a black-and-white still photo from the home security video, the streets he was believed to have been on and details about what happened in an area break-in. It indicated the video had been turned over to Royal Oak police and it urged folks who saw unusual activity or footprints in the snow to notify police.
Spencer said police are still working that case. He said it didn't hurt in that instance for the image to be shown on social media, and that people were making their neighbors aware and asking them to notify police if they had any additional information.
But folks posting on social media or social networks first – or not even notifying police, Spencer said, “has complicated cases sometimes.”
Police Lt. Mike Burrough of Northville Township, Michigan, said while police monitor social media, they want people to contact them if a crime occurs so they can investigate and develop a plan to address the incident and keep the community safe.
Burrough said security video of a suspected crime or suspicious activity shared with authorities is helpful for investigators. “There’s a lot of evidence that can be recovered from video,” he said.
Video can help police identify a suspect, vehicle or license plate, provide clothing description and other circumstantial evidence and show a suspected criminal’s mode of operating.
"If it’s suspicious enough for (the camera owner) to put out on their own, it’s suspicious enough to notify us," Burrough said.
Shawn Thornton of Ferndale, Michigan, said he provided police with footage from his home security cameras of two people trying to break into his locked truck in his driveway in the middle of the night about a month ago. He didn't post the video on social media but said he likes that the exterior cameras, purchased for about $300, may be a deterrent or help police catch possible criminals.
"I figure it's better than nothing," he said.
Law enforcement authorities also can share video or information from the recordings with police in neighboring communities or counties, possibly helping to gather additional information quicker, especially if a similar crime occurred in another locale or the suspect lives in or goes to another community to commit a crime.
In 2016, video surveillance from a home was among the evidence admitted in a high-profile murder trial in Macomb County, Michigan. The video captured a motorcycle and rider going past after 14-year-old April Millsap was slain on a local trail in 2014. Prosecutors said a fitness app on April’s phone, which was stolen by her attacker, was showing quick movement in the same area at the time.
Prosecutors said the motorcycle belonged to James VanCallis, who was convicted by a jury in April’s beating and stomping death. It was a case in which there was no DNA or fingerprint evidence.
Risks of posting video
While home security footage can be helpful to police, posting it online can create problems, including quick assumptions, the potential of retaliation and hindering an investigation, say law enforcement officials.
For example, that person you recorded on your front porch could just be a solicitor, said Beverly Hills Deputy Chief Howard Shock.
Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said privately gathered surveillance video can be helpful to police because there’s no constitutional issues, such as the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“There have been privacy concerns raised about police monitoring people, facial recognition,” he said. “That doesn’t apply to you or I. The Fourth Amendment only applies to the government.”
But Henning said there are some concerns with homeowners taking to social media to share their footage.
There is a danger, he said, that the person who posted the video could be exposing themselves to a risk of retaliation or a lawsuit.
“The police are careful about identifying someone as a suspect,” he said, but if a person posts a video or photo saying someone committed a crime when they didn’t, “it could be defamatory.”
What if a suspected package thief, for example, is a neighbor whose package got delivered to the wrong house, Henning said. “It could be someone who is completely innocent.”
Henning said there also is always concern about vigilantism – people taking the law into their own hands – “and that’s the last thing the police want to see.”
“Knowledge is power, but it might give people too much power. You should not go out and confront a criminal. Do not try to take the law into your own hands,” Henning said. “If you think a crime has happened, report it to the police first.”
Posting videos on social media may also hinder the ability to do an undercover investigation, he said. If police can identify the person in the video, they might want to be able to watch the person for a time.
“When it goes public,” Henning said of video, “it can cut off leads for the police or investigative techniques. If I’m a thief and I’m up on the internet, I’m gonna change how I act.”
Caught on camera
Muriel Harris said packages disappeared off the front porch of her aunt's Southfield, Michigan, home two or three times until her aunt decided to install security cameras. Since then, Harris said, her aunt hasn’t had any packages stolen.
“What she caught on camera was someone on her porch,” Harris said. “An alert lets you know you’re on camera, and they turned and walked away.”
Harris said her own home's three cameras, purchased online for no more than a couple of hundred dollars and self-installed, give her family peace of mind.
“People are deterred from doing anything. They are on camera,” she said. “If they are bold enough to do it anyway, we have something to provide to the police to help catch them.”
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