Technology puts eyes everywhere these days in business districts in most big cities
By David Conti and Jeremy Boren
Published: Friday, April 19, 2013, 11:55 p.m.
Technology stacked the deck against the Boston bombers.
Surveillance cameras — monitoring traffic flow, department store entrances, convenience store registers and ATM kiosks — blanket business districts in most big cities on a normal day. Bring in a few thousand smartphone-toting tourists or spectators at a marathon, snapping megabytes of photos and video, and you have a digital dragnet.
“For the investigators, it's an absolute blessing,” said Gerald “Jerry” Richards, a former chief of the FBI's special photographic unit who founded Richards' Forensic Services in Laurel, Md. “For the perpetrators, it's a curse.”
Digital videos from store cameras and other sources gave authorities investigating the Boston Marathon bombings their first glimpse of the suspects. Images that race spectators captured likely helped track them down. Experts say it highlights a new era in the wars on terrorism and domestic crime.
“Almost all of America is being filmed by somebody,” said Wes Oliver, director of the criminal justice program at Duquesne University School of Law.
Investigators in Boston had a digital evidence trail that experts called unprecedented in the United States' touches with terrorism. Videos from the 1996 Atlanta bombing were from hundreds of yards away. Those of the planes crashing on 9/11 provided no evidence of who was responsible.
Less-expensive, higher-quality digital imaging in surveillance, point-and-shoot and smartphone cameras gives investigators an edge in everyday crimes, too.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said many cameras will monitor the Pittsburgh Marathon route on May 5, including those operated by businesses, the city and agencies such as PennDOT and Port Authority.
“We don't always like ‘Big Brother' watching us, but in this case, it's what helped authorities identify these individuals,” Fitzgerald said.
Frequently, video helps Pittsburgh police solve crimes, especially Downtown.
“More companies are using exterior surveillance cameras, and that's certainly been beneficial to our investigations,” said acting Cmdr. Kevin Kraus, who mentioned an April 6 shootout at Fifth Avenue and Wood Street. “We had a ton of video evidence from the intersection and the businesses.”
Network in place
Pittsburgh operates about 100 cameras in the city. Some are on the marathon route, particularly sections that cross bridges, officials said. Law enforcement officials can log into an Internet system to view video feeds throughout the network and control a camera's angle and zoom level.
Port Authority has 260 cameras, not including ones on vehicles. They are posted along busways and the T light-rail system and at its divisions and park-and-ride lots. Wood Street Station is on the marathon route; Gateway Station is near the finish line.
PennDOT has 14 traffic cameras on the marathon route, but they don't record footage because the agency doesn't want to have to pull footage for traffic crash investigations and lawsuits, said spokesman Steve Cowan.
Technology has brought better resolution to the masses.
In 2000, Richards said, about 5 percent of cameras were digital. Standard film took longer to develop and provided less opportunity for zooming in on someone in the background. Now, about 5 percent of cameras use film, Richards said.
Investigators in Boston asked people at the marathon to review digital shots and videos they took and send them in, noting “no piece of information or detail is too small.” The FBI wouldn't say how many submissions it got but said the public cooperated.
“The crime itself was so high profile, everybody with information is turning it over,” Oliver said.
Octavia Cobb snapped a photo of her husband, Vance, 56, as he sprinted toward the finish line in the Boston Marathon. They were astonished when they realized later that the digital image shows Vance striding in front of the mailbox where the second of two bombs exploded minutes after he passed.
“I could see that in my picture there were some of the same children and women who were seriously injured and possibly killed,” Octavia Cobb said. “You think about that and it's just heart-wrenching.”
The Phoenix couple, who work in the insurance claims industry, planned to send the photo to investigators because the duffel bag suspected of containing a bomb wasn't yet next to the mailbox in her shot at 2:13 p.m. They thought it could help authorities pinpoint the terrorists' timing. The explosions occurred about 2:50 p.m.
Rey Rodriguez, 35, and his girlfriend Lisa Sorensen, 40, both of Bakersfield, Calif., said they examined photos Sorensen took from a spot beneath a rooftop Lord & Taylor surveillance camera that produced early video evidence of the suspects. Rodriguez remembers seeing outstretched hands holding cameras and cell phones at the finish line.
“We're going to put it on a big screen to see if there's something there,” Sorensen said.
Blind spots exist
The surveillance blanket has its holes, police say.
Cameras are more concentrated in business districts than suburbs. Shopkeepers are more likely to aim lenses at cash registers, not sidewalks out front.
Detectives at Allegheny County's audio and video forensic lab examined evidence in 341 cases last year, the highest in its 10 years of existence. They noted that cameras don't always capture an actual crime but often find a suspect in the moments before or after.
Richards said specially trained FBI investigators likely spent days poring over images from the Boston Marathon to study faces and patterns.
“They set up a timeline and learn about the movement of people. That starts an hour or two before the explosion to a half-hour after. Then they follow them, see if they can track them.”
David Conti and Jeremy Boren are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Conti at 412-388-5802 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Boren at 412-320-7935 or email@example.com. Staff writer Tom Fontaine contributed to this report.
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