Cameras playing increasing role in identifying, catching criminals

Private security video playing increasing role in catching criminals

Almost immediately after the gunfire stopped on Bourbon Street early Sunday morning, the world could catch a glimpse of an unknown gunman pumping off several rounds into the scattering crowd, thanks to a camera perched on a nearby bar’s balcony.

As recently as a few years ago, police might have been lucky to get a detailed eyewitness account of a crime and its perpetrator. Now, thanks to networks of private security cameras around the city — particularly in the French Quarter — detectives are able to witness many crimes themselves and release the footage to the public an in effort to nail the perpetrators.

Police have not said how many cameras recorded the shooting that injured 10 people about 2:45 a.m. Sunday at the intersection of Bourbon Street and Orleans Avenue, but they have released video of the incident as seen from two vantage points in the 700 block of Bourbon and another balcony at the corner.

The city Monday afternoon released another video showing a “person of interest” in the incident.

The city once made an effort to set up its own crime-camera network, but most of those electronic eyes never worked and the program in general was a boondoggle wrapped up in Nagin administration cronyism.

Since then, though, several networks of private cameras have sprung up, offering better results.

Private networks pop up

In recent weeks, the Police Department began compiling a list of cameras at homes and businesses across the city available for police review as part of a program called SafeCamNOLA, a spinoff of SafeCam8, which began nearly two years ago in the Quarter.

The city’s oldest neighborhood had about 1,300 cameras registered with the Police Department as of March.

Officials with the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, which is sponsoring the voluntary program, did not respond Monday to messages seeking the latest number of cameras registered with SafeCamNOLA.

Another visual tool the NOPD can use to help find crime footage — or sometimes to track a crime in progress — is a network of more than 900 high-definition cameras that are hooked up with Project Nola, a local nonprofit that runs a closed-circuit network and crime-information website.

Executive Director Bryan Lagarde said that while some images police view are sharp, thanks to HD video technology, others can be grainy and unclear if shot by an older or cheaper camera.

There are ways to improve the footage, he said, often with marked results. Still, technology has its limits, and shows such as “CSI” that show investigators using computers to transform blurry or pixelated images into portraits that could be hung over the fireplace are not reality.

“Hollywood is Hollywood,” he said.

Still, the mere act of recording a crime can yield results.

Caught in the act

Last September, after a 911 dispatcher and two of her adult children were killed inside their Gentilly home, police found footage from a nearby resident that showed the silhouette of a man plodding down the street immediately after the shooting.

The dimly lit video was not pristine and offered few details about the man’s identity, but his unique walk was similar to that of Shawn Peterson, the woman’s former boyfriend.

Along with other, more solid pieces of evidence, that footage was enough to help detectives identify Peterson as a suspect. He was later arrested in connection with the triple homicide.

Private surveillance footage also has been used in the prosecution of some cases, most recently against the suspects accused of killing a 27-year-old man in Algiers in 2012.

A jury recently convicted 19-year-old Milton “Bullet” Wilson in the killing of Fernando Eyzaguirre, and Erin Doucet and Desmonique Reed pleaded guilty to roles in the shooting death that was caught on security camera videos.

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, an Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office spokesman, said that office now regularly uses the footage investigators obtain through Project Nola and SafeCamNOLA.

“More and more frequently it’s available,” he said. “If we have it, we use it.”

In regard to the Bourbon Street shooting, Lagarde said the cameras in his network have been able to assist police with their investigation.

He declined to say what, exactly, they might have captured.

But a statement police Superintendent Ronal Serpas made Sunday afternoon about detectives knowing a good bit more about the gunmen than they might expect offered a possible hint.

Not always a deterrent

For all the good they can do after the fact, some critics of cameras say too much weight is being placed on something that does not necessarily stop crime.

“Pervasive security cameras don’t substantially reduce crime,” Bruce Schneier, a security expert, wrote in a column for cnn.com. “This fact has been demonstrated repeatedly: in San Francisco, California, public housing; in a New York apartment complex; in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; in Washington; in study after study in both the U.S. and the U.K. Nor are they instrumental in solving many crimes after the fact.”

“There are exceptions, of course, and proponents of cameras can always cherry-pick examples to bolster their argument,” Schneier wrote.

“These success stories are what convince us; our brains are wired to respond more strongly to anecdotes than to data. But the data are clear: CCTV cameras have minimal value in the fight against crime.”

Ultimately, the issue of crime prevention lies with more police officers, said Kevin Boshea, an attorney who represents several officers who have been suspended or fired from the NOPD.

With more uniformed bodies — including more officers working off-duty details — “maybe this tragedy could have been prevented,” he said of the Bourbon Street shootings.

Crime cameras “don’t do a hell of a lot of good except to record tragedy after it takes place,” Boshea said.

Staff writer John Simerman contributed to this report.Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.