Security Camera New Star Witness
Saturday, October 8, 2005
There is rain on the lens and the pictures are jerky, but the action unfolds clearly, one methodical frame per second: Roderick D. Jordan, wearing a hooded white sweater, emerges from the check-cashing store, ducks behind a car and points his gun at Fairfax County police officer Lance T. Guckenberger.
Guckenberger crouches behind his car, aiming his gun as a terrified store clerk crawls beneath the police cruiser for cover. It is a cloudy winter morning; the parking lot along Columbia Pike is wet. The frames click. Jordan fires. Guckenberger, in dark jacket and baseball cap, fires. Jordan falls, wounded in the buttocks, dropping his .40-caliber pistol on the damp macadam.
On Monday afternoon, a jury watched as last winter's soundless gun battle was replayed on a movie screen in a Fairfax County courtroom. The prosecutor called it "the cherry on top" of his case. It was also an example of what some experts say has become one of the richest sources of crime-scene evidence: surveillance camera footage.
"There's more visual evidence at crime scenes today than any other evidence," said Grant Fredericks, a former Vancouver police officer and a forensic video analyst with the nonprofit Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association. "We used to count on fingerprints. Now it's security systems."
One of the first things detectives now do at a crime scene is conduct a sweep for surveillance video that might have captured the incident or the perpetrator, public and private law enforcement officials say. A video security firm in California estimates that there are now 26 million surveillance cameras in the United States generating more than four billion hours of video every week.
"In the absence of any human witness, the video might be your only witness," said Thomas C. Christenberry, a former FBI agent and surveillance video expert at the University of Indianapolis.
Terrorism, murder, kidnapping, robbery, burglary, theft, fraud -- all have been captured on camera. The leaders of the Sept. 11 attacks were caught on film, as were the recent London bombers and the first local killing in the 2002 sniper shootings. There are cameras in banks, schools, parking lots, gas stations, stores, police cars, lobbies and train stations and on highways, rooftops and ATMs.
Security cameras are now such an investigative staple that they have led to the new discipline of forensic video analysis, the art of examining and processing surveillance film. Hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country now have video analysts, experts say. This past week, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the law enforcement video association hosted a conference it said attracted people from the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
There are cameras that record, cameras that can zoom in and cameras that can scan. Some can peer in windows. There's a system that can detect a gunshot and quickly aim a camera at the source of the sound. Another can notice things out of the ordinary, such as a package left on a street corner, and send out an alert.
Footage can now be examined for facial features, tattoos, personal mannerisms, jewelry and clothing as well as the license plate, make, model, weight and headlight pattern of a passing car, experts say. Image blurring can often be eliminated, and there is a process called frame averaging in which multiple frames can be blended to achieve one clear picture.
Footage can be used to identify and convict suspects, experts say, and it has a special ability to induce perpetrators to confess. "People, when they're caught on video, are more likely to plead guilty," said Detective Joe Giuffrida, a forensic video examiner with the Maryland-National Capital Park Police. He said suspects recognize themselves on camera more readily than someone else might: "That's definitely me," he said they will realize. "That's the way I walk. That's my posture."
Some investigations, like Washington's recent two-year serial arson probe, have produced thousands of surveillance tapes with countless hours of footage. The video surveillance industry calls this "data overload," and processing it can be mind-bending -- "the fun part," as one federal agent joked.