By: Ruth Callaghan
WA Police are increasingly turning to a growing aid in the fight on crime, seeking footage from residential cameras as part of their investigations.
Home security cameras were once the province of luxury mansions or large apartment complexes, where the risk of theft justified a hefty investment in CCTV systems.
But thanks to a fall in price and improvements in technology, including thermal sensing, motion detection and infra-red for night-time viewing, advanced cameras are within easy reach for most households.
The value for homeowners lies in being able to detect a potential intruder early, capture footage to track down a thief, or share a photo with neighbours of ‘porch pirates’ stealing deliveries from the front door.
But for WA Police, the boom in home security promises a broader benefit: leveraging privately owned cameras capturing footage that can be used to solve crime.
Superintendent Mark Longman formerly of the State Operations Command Centre says the ambition of mapping CCTV cameras across WA has been a goal since 2013, when local governments received a boost in funding to increase their surveillance capacity in public areas.
But with the boom in home CCTV systems, that goal has widened, as police recognise the role private citizens could play in gathering evidence and intelligence around crime.
Being ‘virtually’ at the scene
WA Police are now urging homeowners who have CCTV or security cameras that cover public areas such as footpaths, parks or roads to join the state’s register of public-facing CCTV systems, known as CAM-MAP WA.
The register, which includes government, business and residential cameras, is designed to provide a quick reference for law enforcement agencies if they need to determine where cameras are positioned across the state.
Once registered, it means police can contact camera owners quickly if they need to preserve or review footage that might be instrumental in solving a crime.
Superintendent Longman says privately owned cameras and dashcams are already providing on-the-ground evidence of dangerous behaviour and illegal activity, with in-car cameras in particular used to prosecute bad drivers.
By registering fixed home-based security cameras, he says it makes the task of police in finding and collecting footage easier.
“We get people to register their public facing cameras and we put that into our mapping system,” he says.
“Then if we are looking at a locality for potential footage of an offence, we contact those people for help.
“Usually we email and ask them to review their footage and provide them a link so they can access our digital evidence management system. We can then go in to see if the footage provides evidence of what we are looking for.”
Superintendent Longman says the main reasons police would look for footage include crimes against people, such as assaults or robberies, but also property crimes: burglary, property damage or stealing cars.
There are also issues of public safety that can trigger a request, including investigations into missing persons.
“We might get advised that someone has had a car stolen, and checking video footage from the neighbours can provide useful information,” he says.
“For serious offences we will still go knocking on doors but we might also ask residents in a ring around the area to check their cameras to see if they have footage they can share.”
Widening the net
The growth in home surveillance is driven in part by a concern about crime, with more than 238,000 household break-ins normally occurring each year across Australia, and around 60,000 in households robbed more than once.
In the past year, however, the number has fallen sharply.
WA Police recorded an average of around 1000 home burglaries a month in 2020-21, down from between 2000 and 2500 a month in recent years – part of which may have been due to more people working from home during lockdowns.
Despite this, home-based CCTV continues to grow in popularity.
ABS statistics from 2017-18 suggest about 110,000 WA detached or semidetached homes have a security camera as part of their home security precautions, which represents about one in every eight homes.
Nationally, it is estimated there are close to a million private CCTV systems in place.
“When we get a workable mass of cameras, we can rely on the system, without having to knock on people’s doors to say, ‘we notice you have a camera’,” Superintendent Longman says.
“We still need boots on the ground right now to avoid missing out on footage, but that’s a time-consuming process.
“It will allow quicker investigation of crime and we can then utilise that CCTV footage to help identify the offender faster. It also reduces the demand on our resources as we can focus on the digital evidence that is most relevant.”
Money back for registering
Recognising the value of CCTV in monitoring public areas and potentially reducing crime, some councils have joined in the campaign, offering rebates for residents who install appropriate CCTV systems and register them with CAM-MAP WA.
The Town of Victoria Park will provide rebates of up to $750 for residents, for example, while the City of Karratha will offer subsidies of up to $500 per property.
In each case, residents are required to add their CCTV system to the register.
Superintendent Longman says adding the details of an existing system is simple, but the first step is to check that your camera is public-facing.
Cameras that point on to your private property are not able to be included, with the WA Police wanting to focus on roads, parks, footpaths or other public areas.
To register, CAM-MAP WA simply asks for an email to create an account, the address of the CCTV system and the owner’s contact details. Each camera can then be listed with a brief description of where the camera is or what it can see.
If police need to get in touch, they will make a formal request for CCTV footage, and provide support for the owner to share it online or in hard copy.
There are safeguards in place, Superintendent Longman says, to make sure footage is requested only for appropriate reasons and only to observe areas that are public.
“We only want public-facing cameras registered and we understand that people might have a system in their house that has private areas covered: we don’t want that,” he says.
“We will only access CCTV for a police reason and there’s auditing and accountability over that as well as over who has access to the CAM-MAP WA register.
“While we really want people to register, it is also a voluntary process. You don’t have to do it, but it helps us if you do.”
For more information visit cam-mapwa.police.wa.gov.au.
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