Candid cameras: Video cameras an increasingly useful law enforcement tool

2014-01-12T00:15:00Z 2014-01-13T13:18:09Z Candid cameras: Video cameras an increasingly useful law enforcement toolBy ED KEMMICK The Billings Gazette

On June 6, 2012, a woman called 911 to report that she was following a driver who appeared to be drunk.

She said the man had run a red light on State Avenue and had almost struck two other vehicles. By the time Billings police officers responded, the man was inside the Sam's Club store on King Avenue East.

According to an affidavit charging the man with driving under the influence, the officers confronted him just inside the store.

He had "glassy eyes and smelled like he had been drinking an alcoholic beverage," the affidavit said. But he denied having driven to the store, telling the officers someone else had been behind the wheel.

One of the officers looked up at the surveillance cameras mounted on the Sam's Club building "and asked the Defendant what he thought the video footage would show."

According to the affidavit, "The Defendant looked up at the cameras, shook his head and cursed."

In Billings and elsewhere across the country, people indulging in illegal activities have ever more frequent cause to curse surveillance cameras.

Billings Police Capt. John Bedford said digital video cameras have gotten cheaper, better and smaller in recent years, and a lot more of them are being used by private businesses and homeowners.

"I guess the term for it is ubiquitous," Bedford said. "It's everywhere."

"It's really a significant part of our investigations anymore," he said, to the point where he was a bit reluctant to talk about it in too much detail.

"We don't like people knowing there are video cameras everywhere because we get such good results," he said.

Many big cities have networks of police surveillance cameras in downtown areas, and red-light traffic devices that read license plates are used in many states. In Billings, there is no such network, and the Montana Legislature pre-emptively banned the use of red-light cameras statewide in 2009.

Police officers can obtain court orders to use surveillance cameras as part of specific investigations, but beyond security cameras mounted inside and outside some public buildings, and cameras in all city buses and paratransit vans, there is no government-operated surveillance system in Billings.

Increasingly, though, there doesn't need to be.

In almost every case in which surveillance footage has been used in criminal investigations, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said, the footage is from cameras mounted on private property, businesses mostly. And in nearly every case the footage is turned over voluntarily at the request of law enforcement authorities.

"We rely on surveillance a lot," Twito said. "People's memories sometimes act in funny ways. The video never lies."

One notable recent case in which evidence produced by surveillance cameras played a big role involved the murder of Dejuan Laster on Jan. 17, 2013.

Simon Elliot Jacobson pleaded guilty in June to kidnapping and murdering Laster, as well as a series of earlier robberies. He was sentenced on Friday to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.

The case against Jacobson was "a slam-dunker," Twito said, referring to all the evidence, particularly the surveillance videos, linking him to the crime.

Bedford said Jacobson was not arrested because of surveillance video, but the volume of footage and the wealth of details it contained ultimately persuaded him to enter a guilty plea rather than go to trial.

Charging documents said Jacobson and an accomplice kidnapped Laster and a woman from a Billings hotel, then killed Laster hours later in a remote area a few miles northeast of Billings.

Here's a quick rundown of the key pieces of surveillance video:

Jan. 16, 2003, 8:13 p.m.: Jacobson is at the Ross Dress for Less store on King Avenue West. Video surveillance footage shows him buying clothes that would help him pose as a law enforcement agent. He would later tell a hotel clerk he was an FBI agent and was there to arrest Laster.

Jan. 16, 9:09 p.m.: Jacobson is at the Wal-Mart in the Heights, seen buying a coat and zip ties.

Jan. 16, 9:50 p.m.: Jacobson is at the Zip Trip at Rehberg Lane and Grand Avenue, where he bought gloves. The video footage clearly shows him pulling $1 bills out of a nearly empty wallet and then fishing in his pocket for change to complete the transaction.

About midnight, Laster and his accomplice were captured on video at Extended Stay America, a motel at 4950 Southgate Drive. The footage was not time-stamped, but investigators determined the time based on cellphone records and witness statements.

The motel video showed, among other things, Jacobson pursuing Laster through the motel and then Laster "surrendering" to Jacobson after a short conversation.

Jan. 17, 3:05 a.m.: Jacobson is captured on another Wal-Mart video, where he is seen buying bleach, potting soil and garbage bags. And when he goes to pay for the merchandise, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a big roll of bills and pays the clerk with a $100 bill.

"These images were the ones that really … got him to give it up," Bedford said. “The gig was up. That one Wal-Mart image was so clear."

Evidence of bleach and potting soil were found at the murder scene, and investigators later recovered a shovel — along with a gun and Laster's phone — in the Yellowstone River near Two Moon Park.

Bedford said video surveillance is likely to become even more commonly used in criminal investigations as more businesses and private individuals set up security systems.

"The quality has gotten better on this stuff, just in the last five years," he said. "You can go to Costco and get a great surveillance system."

Bedford does wish, however, that private businesses would take more trouble to make their cameras effective.

"I've been telling banks for years, as you do construction or remodels, reposition your cameras," he said. One simple change would be to put at least some of them low enough to capture facial images.

Wal-Mart’s got eye-level pinhole cameras, he said, resulting in "a good under-the-cap view of these people." 

Ron Wenger, the city's transit manager, said the security cameras on the fleet of 25 buses and 15 paratransit vans haven't been used to solve any crimes since they were installed — using $200,225 in federal stimulus funds — in 2011.

Wenger said the cameras are mainly useful for investigating rider complaints about rude behavior or dangerous activity by the drivers. They are also used to resolve claims if there's an accident involving a transit vehicle.

Wenger said no one reviews footage unless there's a call or a complaint, and footage is generally recorded over in two to three weeks.

Niki Zupanic, public policy director for the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said privacy issues are important to the ACLU, but "we mostly focus on privacy intrusions based on government surveillance.”

For instance, the ACLU intervened when the city of Helena announced plans to install cameras in several parks and city-owned parking lots. The ACLU persuaded city officials to agree to several restrictions, including limiting access to the footage and posting notices that cameras were in use.

"I think it’s important for people to know when they’re being watched," Zupanic said.

She said the ACLU understands the need for security and for using technology to prevent and solve crimes, but there must be a balance between safety and privacy.

And even though cameras used by private businesses are different from those used by government entities, "they still do tend to chip away at people’s sense of privacy," she said.

"Especially here in Montana," she added later, "we take that very seriously — the need to be left alone."

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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