Surveillance Cameras Provide Vital Evidence for Law Enforcement

Context matters and police CCTV cameras can provide it

Last Updated:
June 27, 2023
| ~
min Read
Meg Moore
Marketing Writer

There’s a reason we can watch Law and Order marathons on cable or even stream it from the beginning. The gold standard for courtroom procedurals provides viewers a look, though highly dramatized, at how different branches of the local justice system work together.

Over its 30-year history, and seven spinoff series, Dick Wolf’s detectives rely less on lineups and ask for video footage before the first commercial break. Canvassing the neighborhood, which once sent beat cops knocking on doors, now has officers looking for Ring doorbells and business security systems. These recordings, combined with the city’s matrix of video surveillance feeds, provide the New York Police Department grounds to pursue legal maneuvers to obtain the video.

This tech-savvy approach mirrors the reality for detectives tracking down evidence to bolster their cases. While traditional investigative skills remain paramount to solving complex criminal puzzles, police now amplify their hunter’s instinct and curious minds by meticulously tracking suspects through surveillance video. 

Police CCTV: Modern-Day “Candid Camera”

In New York City, nearly 71,000 public and private CCTV cameras watch nearly 9 million people from street lamps, building walls, and roofs, as well as at delis, retail stores, and apartment buildings. The city averages about eight cameras for every 1,000 people, landing #5 on cybersecurity company Comparitech’s list of most-surveilled largest cities in the world.

This comprehensive network provides investigators with countless hours of pixelated breadcrumbs that can either make or break a district attorney’s case.

“It tells the story,” NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig told Police1. “You see what happened before the incident, during the incident, and then after the incident. And what’s more important is what you see—the clues in the video, the clothing, faces, and means of escape.”

On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Police Department can access 40,000 cameras, averaging more than 10 cameras for every 1,000 Angelinos. In Beverly Hills, California, more than 2,000 cameras, including 29 on the famed two-mile stretch of Rodeo Drive, creates an extensive police video surveillance network that averages one camera for every 16 residents.

There were an estimated 85 million security cameras across the United States in 2021, a 21% increase from 2018. While the majority of surveillance cameras provide retail-theft security and business analytics, technology and software improvements enhance proactive policing strategies. Access to 24-hour cameras, as well as facial recognition, specialized vehicle tracking, and drone programs, are proving to be vital tools for accountability.

The Brain Is Not Netflix, But Police CCTV Is Binge Worthy

Context matters and police CCTV cameras can provide it. This is especially true as eyewitnesses are mistaken more often than we think.

Eyewitness testimony is powerful. Most people believe that the human mind can record, store, and recall every detail, memory, and impression of events we experience. Yet, psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth Lofthus, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, said memories are reconstructed, not replayed, and should be considered as a shifting reality.

“Human memory is far from perfect or permanent and forgetfulness is a fact of life,” she told The New Yorker.

Researchers at The Ohio State University examined hundreds of wrongful convictions and determined that roughly 52% of the errors resulted from eyewitness mistakes. 

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization, leverages eyewitness misidentification to help overturn people’s wrongful convictions by presenting DNA evidence to receive new trials.

“There’s critical mass concerning eyewitness reform," said Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project. “The science dictates it has to change.”

Residents Join Police Video Surveillance Networks

McGruff the Crime Dog still asks us to “take a bite out of crime,” but there’s a new take on “if you see something, say something.” That’s because Ring, the doorbell camera company, calls its products the nation’s “new neighborhood watch.” Residents’ footage can help increase police patrols—without the increased step count for police knocking on doors.

Police departments, district attorneys, and city governments across the country are asking local residents and business owners to join the fight—and stream—against crime. From Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Flagler County, Florida, to Las Vegas, Nevada and San Jose, California, municipal camera networks are expanding to include footage from private security cameras.

Police CCTV networks are also expanding into live feeds from surveillance cameras owned by consenting businesses and residents. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a 15-month pilot surveillance program in 2022 to give police access to monitor these private cameras, working to address public safety challenges as well as department staff shortages. Proponents say real-time surveillance camera access allows police to evaluate scenes, respond faster, and possibly identify witnesses, evidence, and even suspects before officers arrive.

Police CCTV Records Crime In Real-Time

While investing in surveillance cameras can deter crimes like car burglaries, break-ins and porch thefts, providing law enforcement with “more eyes on the ground” is proving invaluable.

After the Housing Authority in Birmingham, Alabama, installed a $6 million video security system upgrade in 2021, police can better monitor its 14 properties. With about 400 cameras and license plate readers now integrated with the department’s real-time crime center, police detectives say access to surveillance video helps them solve more homicides.

“We would not have been able to solve Kingston’s homicide, and countless other homicides had it not been for the Housing Authority’s investment in surveillance footage,” Birmingham Police Officer Truman Fitzgerald told WBRC.

Memories fade, but video can be forever. Or at least until a case is closed. And with the growing network of citizen security camera feeds augmenting police surveillance video channels, many suspects discover what it’s like to star in their own episode of Law and Order.

More Posts You'll Love