You're being watched: How surveillance helps solve crimes

Submitted Photo This surveillance footage still, released by the North Augusta Department of Public Safety, depicts a woman wanted for questioning regarding a fraudulent Walmart credit account.

Surveillance photos of suspects in criminal cases, from shopliftings to bank robberies, routinely appear in the pages of the Aiken Standard and other media outlets; however, obtaining those photos is a routine that takes law enforcement officers hours upon hours of work, often involving multiple investigators.

Surveillance camera footage is one of the first things investigators look for at a crime scene, according to Capt. David Turno, a spokesman for the Aiken Department of Public Safety.

“… When people see things happen, their perception can be different from another witness,” he said. “They might see one piece or another, but the camera will give you exactly what they were wearing, what they looked like.”

A 22-year-old woman was physically and sexually assaulted while walking on Newberry Street early on July 12. One day later and one street over, two unidentified men robbed the TD Bank on Chesterfield Street. Police have since obtained and released photos of the suspects in both cases, and last week they arrested a man in connection with the assault.

Turno said investigators pored through hours of surveillance footage from multiple locations downtown to obtain photos of the suspects in both cases. He said the increasing prevalence of security cameras greatly aids law enforcement.

“So many places have them that you wouldn't think,” he said. “Originally, you thought only banks have them, but now your mom and pop stores, businesses that don't regularly deal with a lot of cash, have them.”

Cameras have become more prevalent partly because the technology has improved so much, and the devices are more affordable, Turno said.

“As we're looking for video, we have to go business to business to look for (cameras) and ask because it's so covert, we can't see,” he said. “They are very small nowadays, and that's a huge benefit.”

Rather than tapes, much of the footage is now captured digitally, which saves time and money for law enforcement and for owners of camera systems.

“I can remember when I was trying to distribute tapes, I'd have to drive the DVDs or CDs or tapes to the TV stations or media outlets and physically hand them to them,” Turno said.

Business owners are always accommodating and cooperative with law enforcement in providing footage, and no one has reused to let officers review footage, according to Turno.

The footage is often downloaded onto a flash drive or saved to a compact disc. Other times, it can be emailed to investigators. After that, it's time to watch it, with the officer looking for any number of items, including a suspect, clothing, a vehicle or the direction in which someone is seen walking.

“We have some in-house people who are more technically knowledgeable, but, a lot of times, it's just hours upon hours of video, and an investigator just has to sit and watch it. That's happened in this recent case,” Turno said.

Having footage from a variety of places and angles helps law enforcement because not every camera captures the same images.

“A person might walk by the outside of a building, and you might catch them on video, but the camera was pointed on the inside of the building to catch when somebody walks in,” Turno said. “Inadvertently, you may have an image or a video, but it's not the best quality because it's out of frame.”

Often, people may have their cameras cleaned or serviced, which can affect the position and quality of its shot.

“We do encourage, if people aren't sure about their systems and want us to look at how they have them, we'll be glad to send somebody down there to look at them,” Turno said.

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.