Eye on You

Doorbell cameras can help residents monitor movement outside the home and provide evidence of break-ins to police.

If you feel like there’s always a camera looking at you, you’re not paranoid. You’re right.

“Once you leave your property, your expectation of privacy should not be very high,” says Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Aaron Lauth. “Regardless of where you go, you’re pretty much going to be on camera.”

With a smartphone in virtually every pocket, anyone can take photos or video, upload footage to social media and have it go viral. But other cameras are watching you too.

In Mt. Lebanon, police use body-worn and dashboard cameras for investigative purposes; some private property owners have doorbell cameras; street cameras are mounted at public places such as Clearview Common or busy intersections,  and many  private businesses have security cameras.

Cameras, no matter the user, are prohibited in private places, such as public restrooms and store dressing rooms, Lauth says. And although Mt. Lebanon police cameras can scan and read car license plate numbers, they do not have facial recognition software.

Lauth calls cameras “force multipliers,” meaning they can be used in public places where human beings might otherwise be watching—a patrol officer in a car, on a bike or on foot, a security guard at work, a loss prevention officer in a store, or even a neighbor sitting on the porch. Placed strategically, cameras can watch many places at the same time with just a few humans monitoring screens. And cameras do not need to be monitored constantly; footage can be stored and reviewed later, if an investigation is needed.

Not everyone thinks cameras in public areas are warranted. The American Civil Liberties Union approves of cameras only in high profile places that are potential terrorist targets. Otherwise, the ACLU believes cameras are ineffective, subject to abuse and may curb human behavior by causing people to avoid suspicion by being cautious about what they read or wear in public. The ACLU also is concerned about the possible repercussions of using night vision cameras or cameras that can see through objects. The group says women and minorities are generally the most often watched on camera.

Lauth says some loss of privacy results in a big gain: crime prevention and crime solving.

During a recent spate of car break-ins in the region, for instance, a resident with a doorbell camera uploaded footage of an incident to police. That footage is circulating and is being used to help identify the suspects.

Mt. Lebanon police combine camera footage with other investigative techniques to solve crimes and provide evidence. Camera footage can strengthen a court case because, although many cases rely on eyewitnesses, a bystander’s testimony can be questioned. “[The testimony] usually not as accurate as you would hope it would be,” Lauth says.

And cameras don’t just help solve crimes. In some cases, knowing cameras may be present prevents bad behavior from happening in the first place.

Film at 11
Mt. Lebanon police cars have had dashboard cameras since the late 1990s, with the first cameras recording video without sound. Officers were reluctant at first to use the cameras, Lauth says, mostly because it was a major procedural change, but also because they were worried footage might be used to try to catch them doing something wrong; it created trust issues.

As with lots of new procedures, objections to the cameras faded once the officers and public adjusted. By 2010-11, Mt. Lebanon’s “dash cams” started recording audio, too. On one of the first days audio was in use, a driver who was pulled over filed a complaint accusing an officer of having an unprofessional tone and treating him poorly. A review of the video showed the officer was “nothing but professional,” Lauth says. Confronted with the evidence, the complainant withdrew his claim.

Currently, police are piloting a body-worn camera system from Axon, the company that makes Tasers. The camera, worn on the chest, records only when the officer turns it on. A detailed police policy dictates when these cameras may be activated. The cameras are intended primarily for investigative or enforcement activities and are not to be used, for example, when the school resource officer is casually walking through the high school hall or when an officer is stationed at a public event like First Friday.

If you see a police officer, however, assume he is wearing a camera.

Body-worn cameras for police were slow to catch on in our state. Pennsylvania’s broad wiretapping law requires that people be informed before their voices are recorded (this applies to anyone, not just police). Police were not permitted to take video inside private residences. And anyone could make a public Right to Know request for a copy of a video under the state’s open records law. Considering the endless hours of potential footage and the amount of confidential information that would need redacting, using the cameras seemed daunting and unwieldy.

Then in July 2017, state legislators passed Act 22, which amended and extended the way police may use cameras. (Read it here)

Act 22 removed some of the wiretap provisions and allows only people directly involved with a case to file request for videos. After the act passed, Lauth served on a committee of Allegheny County police chiefs who researched police camera policies and created model policies.

Mt. Lebanon police are piloting a body-worn camera program using small cameras that record sound and video from investigations and pursuits. Shown, the bank of cams download video when returned to the rack after each shift. /Photo: Sam Oshlag

For Mt. Lebanon’s pilot program, which began this year, a dozen officers (mostly on patrol, though Lauth often wears one when uniformed) are wearing the cameras through spring. He expects all officers to be wearing cameras in 2019.

As body-worn cameras are used more frequently across the country, behavior on both ends—police and public—is improving, Lauth says, noting that fewer people are lodging  general complaints against police, and people are less likely to file a false complaint if they know footage can be retrieved. Axon says video evidence has increased guilty pleas by 20 percent. The cameras also are intended to prevent police brutality.

The cameras aren’t perfect—they can have issues in low light, and they only provide the view from the chest. They can’t show what the officer is seeing with his or her eyes if the head is turned. But they provide a measure of accountability for the officers and the public.

Wearable cameras are getting more agile and in the near future could be used for things like taking reports and scanning IDs, freeing up officers to spend time in the community instead of writing reports. Cameras from all officers at an event could be networked with software and synced with other on-scene cameras, even from other departments, to provide complete coverage if an incident that requires investigation occurs. If misinformation surrounds an incident, government officials could easily redact personal information and release the video to the public to counter it.

Watch an example:

It’s your business
Businesses often use cameras to deter and help solve crimes on their property. Police recently used camera footage from a Mt. Lebanon Rite Aid to verify a shoplifting accusation and issue a citation. Banks routinely use cameras and publicly circulate footage of robbery suspects.

Cameras at ATMs often come in handy for tracking sidewalk crime. Take, for example, a purse snatching on Washington Road. Police would ask businesses in the area to provide their footage. “We’re going to seek out as many camera views as we can to attempt to identify the suspect,” Lauth says.

Cameras cracked a case when several spas were burglarized. In this case, a man posing as a maintenance worker talked his way into the businesses and stole from them while inside. He was captured on video inside, and outside cameras recorded his vehicle—a beige car without a license plate. Using footage from law enforcement cameras mounted at intersections, police were able to see the car on the way to the crime, before the plate was removed. They positively identified the car and the man and filed charges.

Mt. Lebanon has many public areas with cameras, including Clearview Common, Washington Road at Gilkeson/Connor, Washington Road at Bower Hill, Beverly Road at McFarland, Greentree Road at Cochran (cost split with Scott Township), Castle Shannon Boulevard at Mt. Lebanon Boulevard (cost split with Castle Shannon), and Bower Hill Road near St. Clair Hospital (St. Clair Hospital contributed financially). The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office also funded some of the cameras.

On one occasion, a drunk driver left The Galleria (shown in video above), drove his truck up the hill by Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church, nearly flipped his vehicle, sped onto Gilkeson Road and headed south up Washington Road in the wrong lane. He hit one car head-on before ending up in the window of a real estate office on the opposite side of Washington Road. Unbelievably, no one was seriously hurt, but the entire incident was recorded.

Cameras at that same intersection also help track the hit and run crashes that occur when cars or trucks steer through too tightly and clip someone in another lane. In the past, it wasn’t easy for drivers to get the license plate number of the vehicle that hit them; now the camera footage helps.

The camera at that intersection also resolved a “he said, she said” road rage incident near the Fresh Market, when one driver claimed another had opened his car door into hers and caused damage. It didn’t happen, and the male driver was cited for disorderly conduct.

Cameras at automated teller machines capture transactions but also have a wide enough view to provide information about crimes committed nearby.

Cameras monitor Clearview Common, the small parklet Uptown. In one instance, a man claimed he had been mugged walking near the park at night, his wallet stolen. The camera confirmed his story was manufactured. The park had been a hotspot for mischievous behavior, but once the cameras were installed, the complaints stopped.

One of the burgeoning areas of camera use is home security systems. Once only affordable to the wealthy, companies such as Ring, Nest, Arlo and others make it possible for people to install smart security cameras for a reasonable cost. Cameras placed at the front door provide  a fish-eye view of anyone approaching, whether that person intends to knock, deliver mail, steal a UPS package or force his way inside.

Home systems can be sophisticated—some allow homeowners to receive remote notifications that someone’s at the door or in the yard, control the system from a cell phone app, connect it to an alarm system, make copies of footage and circulate it on social media, or submit it to police. Some cameras even allow users to talk back to the person at the door from a cell phone.

Ring has created its own social network. Lauth says police will soon have sign-on privileges, where he can post in the network, report specific incidents and ask users nearby to check their videos for suspicious activity.

A recent post on the Mt. Lebanon police Facebook page with doorbell video showing people breaking into cars reached 17,000 people and included many expressions of thanks. “I appreciate your vigilance on this,” wrote one resident. “We’ve experienced three overnight entries into our vehicles in the past year and a half—unnerving to go out in the morning and see your things rifled through. Hadn’t considered a surveillance camera, but will look into it.”