EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 6, 2013

It's not CSI on television...It's real life

Surveillance videos help, usually, to catch crooks

By Bill Kirk
bkirk@eagletribune.com

---- — In North Andover, a digital video camera at the Citizens Bank branch in the Route 114 Stop & Shop caught images of a man attempting an armed robbery. The video, and still images from the camera, were put on the police department’s Facebook page and publicized via local media. Shortly after, someone dropped a dime with the name of the suspect. He was arrested in his Wilmington home without incident and now faces a slew of bank robbery charges from across the region and in New Hampshire.

In Lawrence, two men entered the City Mart on Haverhill Street. One of the men, wielding a pistol, jumped over the counter and began a violent struggle with the store owner. The other moved behind the counter, took money from the safe, and fled with a bag of cash. As the gunman jumped back over the counter, the store owner lashed out with a metal pole, striking the suspect as he ran away.

The entire incident, which took place over the summer, was captured on video and publicized in The Eagle-Tribune. Thanks to a tip from a viewer, late last month one of the men was arrested and charged in Lawrence District Court with armed robbery and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. The accomplice now sits in a New Hampshire jail, facing similar charges.

Thanks to video, these crimes — and many others — have been solved and face a strong likelihood of ending with successful prosecutions.

“Video is one of the most valuable tools we have now,” said Lawrence Police Chief John Romero. “It’s unbelievable how many arrests we’ve made, for a whole assortment of crimes, from homicides to robberies to assaults. Video is a key element.” Police in Lawrence have even nabbed illegal dumpers.

He ranked video evidence just below fingerprints and DNA in terms of catching suspects and making prosecutions stick.

“When we go to a crime scene, the first thing we look for is cameras,” he said. “It’s become one of the greatest tools for police in the last 10 years. It’s an opportunity to capture a crime, or elements of a crime. We see people fleeing, we see the vehicle. We see clothing, mannerisms, the way suspects walk. We’ve even solved crimes based on videos of tattoos.”

His department has two detectives dedicated to video forensics and a lab in a converted closet with $20,000 worth of cutting-edge computer equipment used to bring out the finest details in what might be an otherwise grainy video, which can then be used to tie a criminal to a crime.

In one case, the officers, Capt. Denis Pierce and Det. Barry Desjardins, were able to enhance a video to show the reflection of two youths as they climbed into a house to commit breaking and entering. Using that video, the two boys were arrested and now faces charges in court.

In North Andover, use of video has also been credited with solving crimes, according to Lt. Charles Gray, head of the town’s detectives division.

“Video evidence is crucial,” he said, noting that the video, as well as still images, are easily transferred into digital image or video files which are then emailed to an area-wide detectives’ organization. Police officers from around the region can view the moving or still shots to see if they can identify the suspect.

“If they know who it is, they let us know, or if they have similar incidents, they let us know,” he said. That’s how the suspect in the Stop & Shop bank robbery was linked to crimes in other communities in the area, he said.

In Haverhill, video has been used successfully on a number of occasions to apprehend suspects in various crimes.

In a Sept. 30 robbery of the CVS on Lowell Avenue, a store security camera photo released by police appeared in The Eagle-Tribune. It led to the arrest of a 41-year-old man after police received information from a resident identifying the person in the photo. He is accused of using a handgun to rob prescription pills from the pharmacy. Police said he was identified through the photo even though he was wearing a scarf over his face.

Not every case goes off without a hitch, however.

In Haverhill the wrong picture of a suspect was released to the media, and a woman who had been at a local bank was identified as a suspect in an ATM card theft. Only thing is, she didn’t do it. A bank error resulted in police getting the wrong photo from the wrong ATM. The photo was then released to the media. The woman, 22, was cleared of any wrongdoing after she proved the withdrawal she had made at the ATM was from her own account. Police then published a picture of the real suspect in the case.

In most cases, however, video works very well as a crime-fighting tool, said Haverhill Lt. Robert Pistone,

“A majority of businesses now have video,” he said. “Whenever there’s a crime, they (the business) gives us access, and we post it to a digital bulletin system and share the information in-house for all the officers to see. If anyone recognizes this person, we ask them to let the detectives know.”

Images and videos are also shared with and by other departments.

On Thursday of this week, Pistone got pictures taken from video of a bank robber from Lynn, as well as images of suspects in other crimes in Lowell and Lawrence.

“Before, the technology was grainy, and when you got stills, you did not get a good, clear picture,” he said. “Now, the stills are high-quality digital images.”

Equipment that used to cost a lot of money is now very affordable, he said, making its use more widespread.

In fact, a quick survey online found security systems for less than $300 available at places like BJ’s, Home Depot and Costco, among other places.

One local security company owner advises buyers to beware of the low-cost camera systems, saying they fall apart easily and don’t generate high-quality images.

“In the last 10 years, prices have come down a lot,” said Stephen Seplow, owner of AAAA Alarm Service; 78 Everett St., Lawrence, a family-owned business that installs security systems throughout the region. But the quality can sometimes also lag.

He said he installs security systems for all sorts of clients. One client in Andover wanted to know who was writing anti-Semetic graffiti on his house. Another, in Salem, N.H., is worried about workmen stealing items from his garage.

Commercial clients, meanwhile, generally want to keep an eye on employees while they are also trying to protect themselves from fraudulent slip-and-fall claims.

Capt. Pierce of the Lawrence Police Department said one of the most important things a business can do to ensure good video quality is to put cameras at eye-level where the lens can capture the face of a person robbing a store or a bank. Most cameras, placed on the ceiling, take lousy video because a suspect simply needs to wear a baseball cap and look down to avoid having his or her face captured on camera.

Pierce, along with Desjardins, have spent hundreds of hours in training on video and photo enhancement techniques, and are eager to pass their knowledge on to local businesses while also offering their services to area departments.

Chief Romero points out that Desjardins is one of just 37 police officers in the world who has reached the highest level of forensic video analysis training. Armed with $20,000 in technology purchased by the department, he and Pierce, who has almost as much training as Desjardins, have been instrumental in helping Lawrence and other police departments around the state solve crimes and prosecute criminals using video evidence.

But it’s not easy.

“Don’t get CSI syndrome,” Desjardins said. “A lot of the video we get is poor quality. You can’t perform miracles.” He added, “every video is a research project.” Since there is no standardization within the surveillance video industry, there are many different formats, frame-rates and settings even with cameras from the same manufacturer.

He and Pierce will spend anywhere from a few hours to a few days looking at a video clip to make it suitable not just for identifying a suspect, but to make sure it’s legally sound and can hold up in court.

“We want it accurate,” Pierce said. “Our main function is to keep it accurate. Not to change it, but to bring out more of the information that’s already there.”

Carrie Kimball-Monahan, spokeswoman for Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, said video, if it’s of high quality and clear, can be very useful in trial as evidence. One problem it presents, she said, is that wide distribution of video can sometimes give defense attorneys an excuse to call for dismissal of a case due to too much pretrial publicity being prejudicial to a defendant.

“That’s the primary reason we don’t like to release video to the media,” she said.

However, in one case last year the DA broke his own rule and asked State Police to release a video of a year-old murder that took place in Lawrence.

Johann Miranda, 29, of Fairhaven, was shot to death the night of Dec. 31, 2011, near Campagnone Common in Lawrence. With the case at a standstill, the video was released to Fox News on Nov. 15 of last year and an arrest was made less than two weeks later. The suspect is now being held without bail pending his next court appearance later this month.