Increasing use of cameras in region aids cops, worries civil rights watchdogs
As the old adage goes, the eye in the sky doesn't lie.
In this case, the eye is public video surveillance and police from Springdale to Kittanning are relying on it more and more to monitor, disrupt and, ultimately, reduce criminal activity in their respective jurisdictions.
Local police have made several arrests this year based in part on video footage captured by public surveillance systems — crimes police say would go unsolved otherwise.
They call the surveillance systems an invaluable tool in the fight against crime and, in some municipalities without public cameras, officials are lobbying for their installation.
It's not an inexpensive proposition, however, and their presence in the community has some civil liberty groups concerned for citizens' First and Fourth amendment rights.
Sill, it's difficult to deny their efficacy.
• New Kensington police used evidence gleaned from public and private surveillance systems to arrest an East Deer man accused of attempting to lure a 15-year-old girl into his car.
• Also in New Kensington, police used video from cameras at Eazer's Restaurant and Deli to catch a man they allege robbed the Citizens Bank there in January.
• Video footage is listed as key evidence against a man charged in the double murder of two sisters in East Liberty in February 2014.
• Video footage was or is being used for investigations including: an August bank robbery in Leechburg, an assault in Harrison in March, the robberies in New Kensington of a Subway restaurant in October and the Valero gas station in May, and the investigation of a suspicious package placed atop Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald's car in July.
“That's a crime we probably don't solve without that video footage,” Detective Sgt. Robert Deringer said of the New Kensington luring case. “I do a lot of fraud work, and I would say about three-quarters of the crimes I'm able to solve are done so using video footage. Whether it's a robbery or someone using credit cards without permission, video can give you that one little bit of evidence that makes the difference.”
In the New Kensington bank robbery case, Deringer used the deli's footage, which showed the man running down the street and into the deli. Cameras inside the deli showed him going into the bathroom.
After watching the footage, Deringer examined the dining area, and there was his man, sitting at a table, eating chicken and biscuits.
New Kensington police Chief Tom Klawinski agrees that public surveillance systems can sometimes make or break a case for police. The city, he said, only has a handful of cameras at its disposal, but many of the city's businesses are equipped with their own systems, which police rely on somewhat regularly to solve cases.
“You would always like to see more cameras,” Klawinski said, “but they come at a very high cost. There are grants available for the equipment and installation, but then you're stuck with the costs of maintaining the servers and annual service agreements, which are not cheap.”
One area where Klawinski said he would like to see more surveillance cameras is the hill neighborhood from Constitution Boulevard to Freeport Road.
Some experts in constitutional law, however, argue that public surveillance in such residential neighborhoods can pose threats to the rights of those who live there.
Madhuri Grewal, policy counsel for the Washington-based Constitution Project, said residents' reasonable expectations of privacy could be compromised by video surveillance on a residential street.
“Let's say you open your front door, and the camera can see into your home and what you have in it,” Grewal said. “There are definite questions there whether your right to privacy is at stake. There are also issues with your right to free association because they can monitor who shows up at your door every day.”
Although no case law exists on issues specifically involving public video surveillance, Grewal points to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that can shed light on the issue of privacy in the digital age.
The case, United States v. Jones, stems from an incident in which police installed a GPS unit on a suspected drug dealer's car in Maryland without a warrant.
At issue was whether the installation constituted a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in concurring with a court ruling that the police violated the suspect's rights, focused more on violations of privacy, noting that such monitoring would reveal private information like “trips to the psychiatrist, plastic surgeon (and) the abortion clinic ...”
As Grewal sees it, the same principle can be applied to public video surveillance.
“Some people say you lose all reasonable expectations of privacy on public streets, but 24/7 surveillance can't be compared to someone snapping a photo,” Grewal said. “Under this type of surveillance, it could be out there that you walk into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every Monday morning.
“It's going to be interesting to follow where these types of issue go in the court system.”
Klawinski, however, said the city has never received a complaint about the surveillance and maintains that police review footage only to find evidence of a crime that's been reported.
“We've never heard a negative word,” he said.
The same is true in Freeport, where officials installed 16 cameras in 2009 with funding they received through the office of the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha.
According to Freeport police Chief Jeff Swiklinski, officers have used the video surveillance footage “countless times” to solve crimes. The systems have increased the department's rate of crimes solved, he said.
“Sometimes the footage flat out gives us the evidence we need to solve a case,” Swiklinski said. “Other times, it provides clues for the footwork. Regardless, it's very valuable.
“Our residents here are in favor of having them because it works both ways. If someone is accused of a crime they didn't commit, the evidence from video could exonerate them.”
In Kittanning, police Chief Bruce Matthews views the handful of cameras the borough has installed in the business district as nothing more than an effective investigative tool.
“They're good to have, but they're not the answer to everything,” Matthews said. “They're rolling all the time, but we're not going to monitor it 24/7, and we're not going to review footage unless we are looking for a particular incident. There is no substitute to good, old-fashioned police work.”
Springdale officials, though, are looking into buying equipment that would allow police to live stream video from their surveillance cameras to their patrol cars. The borough has four cameras overlooking Veterans Memorial Field to deter vandalism.
Councilman Gene Polsinelli, who served as a Springdale police officer for about two decades, supports the proposed $1,400 expense for the equipment as a means of preventing crimes, rather than just solving them.
“It seems like everything involving video is reactive,” Polsinelli said. “If we give police the ability to monitor the videos wherever they are, they have the opportunity to be proactive and actually stop what's going on, whether it be vandalism or anything else.”
Vandalism is the reason Jefferson Township officials are considering security cameras at Laura J. Doerr Memorial Park along North Pike Road. Three baseball fields were destroyed there in December when someone broke through the park gate with what is presumed to be a pickup truck and turfed the area.
The damage was estimated at $20,000.
The Saxonburg Area Baseball Association, which leases the fields in the township-owned park, did not qualify for an insurance settlement for the damages. The township only received $2,000 for repairs.
In an effort to recoup some of the money lost, the baseball association is offering an $1,100 reward for any information leading to the identification of those guilty. They hope to collect damages from the driver's vehicle insurance provider.
So far, though, no suspects have been identified, said Rodger Davis, vice chairman of township supervisors.
“We're still exploring whether it's feasible to get cameras in that park,” Davis said. “Had we had them before, maybe we catch the guy and help out the baseball association. Who knows? It's a tough call.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.