Surveillance cameras prove helpful in crime probes

Posted: February 01, 2013

IF IT WEREN'T for a few seconds of grainy footage, Jason Smith would still be a free man.

Instead, the Bucks County exterminator, who authorities say savagely killed pediatrician Melissa Ketunuti on Jan. 21, is in police custody after being filmed walking around Center City both before and after visiting the victim's home on Naudain Street.

The footage, discovered at a neighborhood coffee shop two days after the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia physician was slain, gave detectives the break they needed to solve the horrifying case.

To city officials and law-enforcement experts, the footage offered another reminder of the crucial, ever-growing role that surveillance cameras play in helping authorities fight - and solve - crime.

"I don't think we needed this incident to remind us of how critical [cameras] can be, but it underscores the point, unfortunately," Michael Resnick, the city's director of public safety, said Friday, after meeting with University of Pennsylvania officials to consider adding the school's cameras to the city's surveillance network.

Increasing the number of digital eyes that police have on streets remains a top priority, Resnick said.

The city operates a network of about 200 of its own cameras, but its quality and reliability have been well-documented sources of frustration.

This month, the Inquirer reported that 50 of those cameras aren't operational, a fact that infuriated a handful of City Council members who traveled to Baltimore to marvel at the Charm City's surveillance system, which features 622 cameras - almost all of which are operational.

In 2009, the Daily News reported that dozens of the city's cameras - some in high-crime areas - were covered by plastic bags because of problems with the wireless and fiber-optic network set up when John Street, Mayor Nutter's predecessor, was mayor.

Resnick noted that the city's surveillance network probably has access to at least 1,000 cameras, including feeds that it receives from PennDOT, SEPTA, Amtrak, the National Park Service and Philadelphia International Airport.

About 300 property owners in Philly have registered their cameras with the Police Department through the SafeCam initiative, said Cpl. Frank Domizio. They signed an agreement to provide police with footage captured on their cameras if a crime occurs.

"It's a great tool for our investigators to be able to pinpoint where a camera is after a crime occurs in that area," Domizio said. "It saves so much investigative time where we could be searching for that [suspect], rather than searching for cameras to find that person."

In a recent interview, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said that investigators wouldn't have been able to solve the 2012 murder of off-duty Police Officer Moses Walker Jr. without surveillance footage that showed his two killers in action.

"When we put a video out, there's a higher probability of us getting a name and a call that'll identify the offender," Ramsey said.

During the past year, Domizio said, investigators have solved 121 cases in which they received tips from people who viewed surveillance footage that police released of a crime.

Whether surveillance cameras can act as an effective crime deterrent is a different question.

Temple University criminologist Jerry Ratcliffe said he and his researchers are evaluating the surveillance cameras owned by the city to determine their crime-prevention value.

In London, where cameras track and register the license plates of every car that enters the city, people have begun to recognize that the power of surveillance has limits, he said.

"Crime continues to fall in the United Kingdom, but over time, people have recognized that cameras don't provide a sense of security," Ratcliffe said.

Cameras can, however, have a huge impact in criminal cases.

"This is the value of video evidence: As long as the video is of a high enough quality, it's really incontrovertible," Ratcliffe said.

"In forensics, criminologists are aware of the 'CSI Factor,' where it's increasingly difficult to convince a jury to find somebody guilty if it's not supported by forensic evidence," he said.

"We may see a video factor, where people will find it harder to convict someone without video footage."


On Twitter: @dgambacorta

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