Video was a critical component in finding and prosecuting the bomber responsible for the Boston Marathon bloodbath. Even as first responders arrived on the scene Monday, police were already securing video footage from the vast network of surveillance cameras keeping watch over downtown Boston.
Since 9/11, law enforcement agencies have used federal grants to buy surveillance cameras for areas across the country plagued by crime or potentially targeted for terrorism. A surely outdated count from 2007 said downtown Boston was watched by a network of at least 147 police surveillance cameras. On the marathon route, it’s likely that most businesses have surveillance cameras, along with every ATM and red-light traffic device with a license plate reader. Not to mention every spectator with a camera phone.
Combing through video evidence is the new standard in dealing with crime in public, says Grant Fredericks, a forensic video analyst who teaches forensic video technique at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.
“Video holds more evidence than any other source: more than DNA, crime-scene analysis or eyewitness testimony,” Fredericks said. “There are people sitting at home with key evidence sitting on their hip. I think the concern going forward is getting to the video before people erase it, and ensuring that the best evidence is recovered.”
The buildup of the police surveillance network has not gone unchallenged. An effort by the Electronic Privacy Information Center thwarted the installation of 5,000 surveillance cameras in Washington, D.C., in 2008 after the D.C. Council refused to appropriate $866,000 to pay for it, citing privacy concerns. Activists in Seattle have for more than a year prevented a surveillance camera system from being installed along the waterfront of Puget Sound.
The task for the police is daunting. So far, there is no software capable of singlehandedly processing large amounts of video. Analysts must watch the thousands of hours of video footage collected from surveillance cameras and spectators.
But there is gold to be found. “If you look at events in Boston,” Fredericks said, “how many people were down at the site for setup or cheering on racers? Hundreds of thousands. And how many of those people had cameras? Practically everyone…There are hundreds of hundreds of still photos and videos of the suspect and police don’t know quite how to get at it. But it’s there, guaranteed.”
By late last week, law enforcement had zeroed in on the Tsarnaev brothers. Making their photographs public scared them into the second crime spree that left one of them dead and the other in the hospital and charged with the Boston Marathon casualties.
Boston’s camera saturation is the norm in major cities. Grants from the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security and other smaller grants to the Port of Boston allowed the city to amass hundreds of cameras since 9/11, both to monitor for national security and to deter street crime.
While there’s not one number of all the surveillance cameras in the United States, a project of the ACLU documented press reports from every state except Wyoming and South Dakota detailing police surveillance cameras in the states. Individual cities also have large camera networks made possible by federal grants, according to the Boston Globe.
In 2007, St. Paul, Minn., got a $1.2 million grant for 60 cameras for its downtown; Madison, Wis., bought a 32-camera network with a $388,000 grant; and Pittsburgh added 83 cameras to its downtown with a $2.58 million grant.
In the 1990s, Chicago was one of the first major cities to use police cameras to monitor high-crime areas plagued by gang violence and street-level drug crime. The cameras have also been part of policing in all major cities. In a study of police cameras in Baltimore, researchers found that after four months of setting up the cameras downtown, crime in that area was down by about 25 percent, according to a study from the Urban Institute.
The key isn’t just having cameras; real-time monitoring and full integration of the cameras must be part of regular policing, said Nancy La Vigne, lead author of the report. It would be a struggle to find an area without at least some surveillance cameras, said La Vigne, but the saturation necessary to see every activity isn’t typical.
In other mass attacks, the video system was the key investigative tool that police used to identify suspects. It was video analysis that led police to the perpetrators of the 2005 London subway bombings in the city’s Tube system. Researchers in 2006 estimated that the United Kingdom was saturated with about 4.2 million surveillance cameras, or one camera for every 14 people, according to a study from the British Home Office.