There are few things cameras can’t do in 2014: smartphones connect people for face-to-face chats across continents, small DSLRs can shoot feature films and somehow, a GoPro can survive falling out of an airplane.
But most security camera video still looks like it was shot with a webcam circa 1998. Footage from robberies or holdups released by police is usually so blurry and pixelated that details are virtually nonexistent — something that impedes law enforcement when dealing with one of its most important tools.
Even with sometimes-shoddy quality, video footage is still integral to many investigations, forensic video analyst Michael Plaxton told CBC Hamilton. In the last month, police have released footage from several investigations — including the so-called "wigged bandit" robberies, a holdup by a man in a fox hat, and the murder of 57-year-old Ernie Sitter.
But better quality surveillance video would make for more pointed and effective investigations, he says.
'A lot of thieves seem to have figured out that the systems aren’t that great. If a guy is going to rob a store, he’s going to rob a store. They know how to dodge past it.' - Michael Plaxton, forensic video analyst
“When I have good video, almost 80 per cent of the time it results in a plea,” Plaxton said. “The accused looks at it and says, ‘That’s me. I’m screwed.’ And that saves in court time.”
But good video is hard to find — and Plaxton would know, because he’s seen a lot of it. As Hamilton police’s only certified forensic video analyst (and one of only 40 in the world) he pored over 16,449 security camera videos last year on non-major crimes like shoplifting and robbery alone. The investigation into the disappearance of Ancaster’s Tim Bosma brought in over 10,000 video files just on that one case.
“There’s so much video now. I’m a one man shop here and I can’t keep up with it,” he said.
An average security video system is fairly simple. Most come with four or more cameras that connect to a digital video recorder (DVR) and a hard drive for storage. A good security system with four cameras and a quality DVR will run at least $1,000, Plaxton says. A cheap system with four cameras and a 500 gig hard drive costs about $350, while more expensive options can shoot up to upwards of $3,000. “You can go with that cheaper option,” Plaxton said. “But you get what you pay for.”
Space, the final frontier
Cheaper options usually come with cameras that are made with plastic lenses and parts. But the build isn't the biggest issue — it’s storage space, as HD video takes up huge volumes of disc space. Most security systems come with a DVR that allows for variable recording quality, and lower quality recordings take up less space. That’s the option a lot of shop owners opt for.
Running an HD camera 24/7 at its peak setting just isn’t feasible for many small businesses, Plaxton says. But it's that lower quality option that is the biggest cause of blurry, pixelated security camera video.
Having over 1,000 different kinds of systems on the market doesn’t help investigators, either.
“I’ve gone into stores where the DVR is all in Korean and Chinese, and I have to figure that out, which can be difficult,” Plaxton said. Output settings for out-of-market DVRs often spit out file formats that are almost unusable on North American computers.
“All of us in the business, we’ve been pushing for a standard to be set," he said. "That would make my job 100 times easier.”
Technical limitations aren’t the only thing causing poor quality video. The way cameras are placed in businesses can also destroy a security camera’s effectiveness, says retired police detective Kevin Bryan, who spent 16 years in York Regional Police's forensics unit.
Most companies and banks don’t want cameras shoved in their customer’s faces, so they opt to place them up high on walls or ceilings where they’re less invasive. “It’s bad PR to have it right in your face,” Bryan said. But for all the good it might do for a company’s image, it doesn’t do much to help them if they get robbed. Instead of faces, law enforcement ends up with shots of hoods or baseball caps.
“We know what baseball team they love, but we don’t see their faces,” Bryan said.
'These cameras weren't really meant to catch someone'
“A lot of thieves seem to have figured out that the systems aren’t that great,” Plaxton agreed. “If a guy is going to rob a store, he’s going to rob a store. They know how to dodge past it.”
Some businesses are more worried about their own employees dipping into the cash than being robbed from the outside — so security cameras are pointed towards the till, Bryan says. “Sometimes it’s just there to deter and catch internal theft,” he said.
“A lot of times, these cameras weren’t really meant to catch someone.”
Which is a shame, because when the video exists, it’s invaluable, he says. “Whenever I knew there was video of a scene, I knew where look for fingerprints and for DNA, stuff like that.”
Widespread adoption of a uniform camera system isn’t impossible, Plaxton says. The city is in the process of outlining requirements for security cameras in taxis, and there’s “no reason that couldn’t happen for convenience stores.”
For now, his fingers are crossed. “It would mean I wouldn’t have to wrestle so hard with these things."