West Seattle Block Watch Captains’ Network gets security-camera savvy

Story and photos by Katie Meyer
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

A high-interest topic led to a well-attended meeting of the West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network this week – first meeting of 2013.

In addition to BW captains, Tuesday night’s meeting at the Southwest Precinct drew more than a few others, some saying they were there specifically to learn about “these surveillance cameras” – the announced main topic. One person later mentioned that during a break in at her home, the professional security alarm company that they used “called our house saying “we are not calling the authorities at this time,” loud and clear on the answering machine,” as it wasn’t able to verify if it was a false alarm trip or not. She believed that “If we’d had cameras and home system, we would have had pictures of guy carrying our TV out the door!”)

Seattle Police’s Community Police Team Officer Jon Kiehn and Detective Scotty Bach led the talks/presentations and Q/A.

Officer Kiehn spoke about how to integrate security cameras into your overall home-security strategy.

He began by asking the audience if anyone was familiar with CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) – guidelines for changing your home/property environment so people are less likely to commit crimes there, so you are less likely to be a victim: “While CPTED doesn’t completely eliminate opportunities for criminals, it really does decrease them – and surveillance cameras can have a real effect on that.”

Then, the law on recording video:

As outlined by police – You are not to videotape someone where they have an expectation of privacy. If your security camera is on your roof pointing down to the top unfrosted part of someone’s frosted bathroom window, that person had an reasonable expectation of privacy – you’d be violating the law. Kiehn said that it’s a “relatively vague law, but the best way to use the camera is to observe movement on your own property.” Be careful beyond that, because people can contest that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy. While he doesn’t recommend you focus a camera to gather information off of your property, it is up to the citizen installing and using the camera to understand and follow the laws. He recommends erring “on the side of less,” noting that if you record video of your own property, it “makes it more likely we’ll be able to use the footage.”

Some questions were raised about cameras recording the street in front of one’s home, or an alley – Kiehn reiterated that the law is a bit vague, but you can have a camera focused on a public street in front of your property. If someone is in the middle of the street, or they’re sitting inside their car on a public street, they have no expectation of privacy.

Types of security cameras:

1. Landscape camera – wide screen that covers an entire room or yard. These don’t provide details, such as clear views of faces.

For a high-traffic area, or where an individual’s actions will be identified later, the next camera is preferable:

2. “Pedestrian” camera – focuses on door or walkway where people go in and out (also referred to as focused on a “choke point”); focused to be able to catch a picture of a person’s face, with good lighting, in a position where you expect most of the pedestrians to be.

3. Vehicle/license plate camera – used mostly by businesses: positioned at entry or exit points where cars/trucks come in and go out, like at a gas station, so it sees the license plates.

Most systems have three or more cameras that will overlap/combine coverage. Designate one camera as pedestrian, focus others in other ways. Have them set up at entry points, and areas where lighting is sufficient to capture a good picture. Motion sensor lights work for cameras because if person keeps moving, the light stays on.

It was also noted that motion-sensitive cameras help to cut down on stored video to scroll through, and they save disk space, keeping the hard drive from filling up as quickly. When the system fills up. it will start overwriting previous video, and Kiehn noted that SPD’s Burglary Unit advises homeowners to unplug their system after they capture something important, so they or detectives can retrieve video before it’s erased.

For your home, if you have a camera that covers your yard and a camera focused right at your door, you “get a good shot of a person’s face if they break into your house.” Kiehn reminded everyone that security cameras are just one piece of CPTED, which also spans noting serial numbers on your electronics, having good visibility on your property, adequate strategic lighting, neighbors who are aware of what’s going on, and more. CPTED is a “good list of rules to make your place less likely to be a target,” he continued, standard guidelines that are used in many countries around the world.

WSBWCN co-leader Karen Berge mentioned that “we had a field trip with officer Kiehn, 1-1/2 years ago,” that was videotaped. “He walked us through a house that was vacant at the time (between previous owners moving out and new ones moving in), and he walked us through every aspect talking about a criminal would view it, versus how a homeowner might view it.” (We recorded the tour for WSB – here’s the video:)

Getting video to the SPD:

Officer Kiehn advised that if you install a security-camera system, learn how to make a copy of video that has captured suspicious or criminal activity. “It’s way quicker if you put up a CD-RW in and burn it off, hand it to officer, it’s already in evidence.” Otherwise, you have to wait for detective to get through their stack of reports then come to you and look for video. If info gets disseminated to officers in a few hours, it’s likely they’re still on the same shift and might recall something from that day, versus getting video info five days later.

Next, the group heard from Detective Scotty Bach, Technical Investigator with SPD (and recent medal-winner).

Some advice from Bach:

Don’t leave tools in view. This causes criminals to come back, because tools are easily pawned. He helped chase a suspect back to the 36th/Morgan “problem” house, where, according to Bach, a suspect admitted that he scouts a neighborhood, pre-sells items he sees, then goes back and steals them. Tools aren’t tracked easily. He targeted a garage for specific tools on view. So, lock up your tools!

Fence: Close your gates. Padlock the ones you don’t use often; for the gate you use frequently, deadbolt it at night. Make your house less of a target.

Close off access to alley and streets. In one case, a suspect was chased down an alley, then cut through yards between houses to the street to escape. If your yard is fenced, consider adding gates between front yard and back yard at the sides of your house.

Security film on your windows: Relatively cheap, and it helps. It may stop them or at least slow them down in easily breaking out windows.

Reinforce the door locks. Install security lighting. Ensure that your home isn’t obscured by bushes. Also trim bushes so that windows aren’t hidden from view, such as basement windows, otherwise “they’re a target.” Signs for alarm system, and beware-of-dog signs, “anything to make them keep going down the road. ”

Security camera systems:

Bach made clear that while he was speaking about both camera and alarm systems in general and ones that he’s had experience with, he was not recommending the purchase of any specific brand. There are many different systems at many different prices, and consumers should research what’s best for their homes.

Systems range from high end to relatively inexpensive, such as the low-cost “Ace” that comes with door sensors when triggered, sounds a loud alarm, and phones you with pre-recorded message. If it goes off and alerts you remotely, you can call SPD, say your alarm is tripped on a specific door opening, and request an officer be dispatched.

The “Allied” system will text up to three people, e.g. “Basement door has been opened.” MACE system is around $100, is battery-powered, and you can add sensors to it including door sensors, motion detection. It will call up to three people if no one turns the system alarm off.

One system with IR cameras (infrared), the Lorex ECO 4, is available at Amazon, Walmart, et al; there’s also a very similar system available at Costco. The detective said he has personal experience with using it. Along with cameras, it comes with a hard drive that gives the user two to three weeks of video.

In his experience, Back doesn’t think that wireless and Bluetooth cameras work as well as hard-wired ones. Some systems can also take a snapshot and send it to your phone. The Lorex ECO 4 is a basic, low-level type of system that he’s installed in many homes of people he knows. You need a hard drive for storage, usually included in the system.

Some systems allow integration of higher-resolution cameras. Caution was urged with IP cameras, which upload video over the Internet, because you might go over your data transfer limit with your provider, especially when using HD video.

IR cameras – some record to an SD card right in the camera – but if camera is stolen, the card’s gone. Some systems, like Logitech, will record to an in-camera card, then upload the video every 12 hours. If you shut your computer down, though, no video gets saved to it. Most of these systems now will write to a USB stick. Otherwise, his officers will come out and retrieve the video.

The Synology system is a networked storage hard drive that “wears a bunch of hats” – you can run iTunes, view your cameras in real time on your computer, access video stream remotely, etc. (This is all for IP-based cameras.) They have sharper images, usually, and software such as Milestone, ViewCommander, etc., are used to view cameras in real time on your computer. IP cameras can be pricey.

Reconyx makes “trail” cameras that are battery operated, with infrared built in, and they take motion triggered still images, up to 40K images. The storage drive will write over itself, but you have several days of storage. Top of the line is expensive, but you can get a system of these for around $200. The Reconyx “cellular-enabled upgrade camera” system will also e-mail a picture or text it to you.

Hide your hard drive, but check it often!

Learn how to use your security-camera system, and check once a month to make sure it’s on. Bach recounted one incident where a homeowner unplugged his camera system to plug in a power tool, then forgot to plug security cameras back in, and had no video when their home was burglarized. A lot of the time, he sees “disk full” message because people didn’t set their system up to overwrite previously stored data. Some systems can be configured so that it emails you if a camera is disconnected or if the disk fills up. Hide the hard drive from the crooks! Don’t put it in your bedroom, or your home office – maybe install it in the attic, or hidden away in basement.

Bach showed video recorded in an area neighborhood, 2:30 am, with IR cameras that picked up thieves spending more than 15 minutes in the alley, prowling cars, stealing his security camera (which he’d installed too low and accessible with a planter box below it as a “step stool” – lesson learned!). The video revealed a Chevy Tahoe the suspects had stolen down the street; camera showed them riding in it, with the vehicle’s broken window visible. Cameras also caught a full-face shot as the thief looked into camera to steal it; combined with other clues/evidence, the suspect was identified and now has a felony warrant out for his arrest. Bach noted that it’s actually rare for security cameras to be noticed, let alone stolen.

Document serial numbers! Both Kiehn and Back talked about the importance of documenting the serial numbers on your possessions in case the items get stolen – it takes very little time, and when serial numbers are included in a police report, officers can look them up in real time on their car computers when they come across items at other crime scenes, in stolen cars, etc., and make an arrest quickly.

Criminals can remove serial numbers, but then they can’t pawn the item; they can re-sell a stolen item through other channels, but that takes more effort on their part, and pawning is quicker for them. Kiehn said that you can also engrave your drivers license number on your items. “The SPD report system has two fields in it, one for a serial number, and one for an ‘owner applied’ number. Let detectives know if you’ve applied a number. It will bring up all reports connected to items listed as stolen from you. That’s huge!” He doesn’t recommend marking your items with something visible only with black light; officers don’t carry black lights and wouldn’t know whether an item was marked that way when they come across it. Use “what will be utilized readily” such as serial numbers or engraved unique identification numbers.

One method of documenting serial numbers mentioned was to take clear photographs of the serial numbers and burn them onto a CD or DVD. Hide the disk or put in safety deposit box (don’t just save them on the computer, in case your computer is stolen!)

Kiehn reiterated that it really helps for citizens to know serial numbers of their items, to learn about CEPTD, do yard trimming for visibility, set up surveillance cameras if need be, be active in Block Watch. That all helps officers help citizens – “It’s very valuable because you know your neighborhoods, and what/who should be there.”

Some questions and answers summarized:

What do burglars look for when they break in? That depends on the burglar. Some look for drugs, some look for things easy to move – small electronics, jewelry, tools, probably because they have someone who will buy it.

The SPD system prioritizes calls received as one of four types – and intrusion alarms are lower “priority 3.” More urgent calls take priority for the officers available during a shift. One difference between a commercial alarm system call and a private citizen calling in an intrusion alarm is time: A commercial company spends several minutes calling the homeowner at home, then tries other numbers on file for them, before calling 911, where the caller documents the info then forwards it to dispatchers. If you get notified by your personal security camera system that your basement door sensor just tripped, you can call 911 directly with the info, and be at the house to meet officers. Compared to a professional alarm system that’s been sending false trips several times in a day, officers do know of the “real person” factor and that a “subscriber” will actually be there to speak with, once they receive the alarm notice from dispatch.

Are there “tech geeks” who can set these things up for us, rather than calling a professional security company? Yes – you can also call SPD and request an officer to schedule a walkthrough of your property and comment on your prevention methods.

Can you wire old sensors into, say, a new MACE system? It’s possible that there are independent systems that will allow you to integrate existing sensors from a previously used professional alarm system, but research would be needed to verify that.

As the meeting drew to a close, Kiehn was asked about doing another CPTED presentation and a walk through demonstration. He is available for that, and said it’s the most useful if there is a group of people he can address at one time, such as block watch participants, or other citizens who will schedule a group get together.

POSTPONED: Returned precinct commander Capt. Joe Kessler was unable to attend after all because of a personal matter. He’s now planning to come to the February meeting.

The West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network usually meets on fourth Tuesdays; they’re on the Web here and on Facebook here.

9 Replies to "West Seattle Block Watch Captains' Network gets security-camera savvy"

  • ScottA January 25, 2013 (5:42 am)

    Great write-up for those of us beyond WS borders too! Thanks for the reminders.

  • Jennifer January 25, 2013 (7:16 am)

    Great info! Thanks!!

  • sven January 25, 2013 (9:46 am)

    I have one of the Lorex systems mentioned in the article. It was $400 at Costco a few months ago. My neighbor across the street was burglarized a couple times so I wanted to be a little proactive against that. I currently have seven cameras set up (I did spend $100 on a wireless camera to put on the detached garage). I like it for many reasons:

    1) I can easily check my cameras on either my computer or my phone
    2) The cameras are small and unobtrusive
    3) The nightvision on them is surprisingly good for such low cost
    4) The DVR has motion sensitivity built in, so I set areas where I want to detect motion on the picture and it handles saving data only when motion is detected

    What I don’t like:
    1) Fairly low resolution. Could be remedied with more $
    2) DVR user interface is fairly clunky.

    I have cameras positioned all around my house. The front is covered by multiple cameras so there’s no chance for anyone to come through undetected. I have a good view of anyone who comes to the front or back door.

    I’ve had two occasions where it was pretty useful. Once was when I caught a contractor showing off some work he did in my backyard without my permission (I had some other issues with him and didn’t want him trespassing on my property without my permission — the work he did wasn’t even that great, so I don’t know why he’d be showing it off)

    Another was when there was a teenage party at my neighbor’s house and it got out of hand and some kids were scattering and I caught one hopping the fence into my yard. He didn’t do anything besides run through, but it was nice to have his picture in case something did happen.

    They are very easy to install, and if you’re a little clever and adventurous to enter your attic, they can be put in with minimal wiring showing. All mine are routed through the attic to where I keep my AV equipment, so I can watch them on the big screen if I want as well.

    Are they perfect? No. But they provide additional peace of mind and deterrent from burglary.

  • KC January 25, 2013 (9:46 am)

    This is sooooo helpful. Thank you!!!

  • ToniR January 25, 2013 (10:04 am)

    Thank you again, WSB! The detail you provide makes me understand that I’m going to have to do some more planning/research before installing a system at my recently-burgled house!

  • wsn00b January 25, 2013 (10:07 am)

    Good writeup. Thanks.

  • D January 25, 2013 (10:15 am)

    To the woman who got robbed while the alarm company didn’t respond, you don’t need a camera, you need a new security company.

  • ladybell January 25, 2013 (5:20 pm)

    I really want to buy security cameras for my home. I see them on sale at Costco,good prices. However, I don’t know how to install them myself and I’m not computer savy. Anyone know a company/legit persons in West Seattle to help with installation?

  • Kelly January 26, 2013 (8:35 am)

    Ladybell, I highly recommend Protective Systems, an excellent, Seattle-based, family-owned business since 1976. They offer free in-home, no obligation consultations. http://www.protective-systems.com

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