How does WFPD use private security footage to solve crimes?

WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — Private security footage is nothing new to criminal investigations.

However, the huge growth in the number of recording-enabled devices and the fact that footage usually lands in a cloud server instead of a tape have rapidly changed how police approach solving crimes.

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When a third party maintains the footage on the cloud, it gives police the ability to seek the images directly from the storage company rather than from the resident or business owner who controls the recording device.

In 2022, Amazon-owned Ring security company admitted providing audio and video from customer doorbells to police without user consent at least 11 times. The company cited "exigent circumstances."

In thousands of cities and towns, camera owners can opt into programs that give police access to their camera footage — sometimes live-streamed, sometimes after a specific request by police.

The Wichita Falls Police Department also uses private security footage to help solve crimes by allowing residents to opt into its SAFECAM program.

According to Sgt. Charlie Eipper, SAFECAM gives the WFPD a list of people who might be willing to share their camera footage with police in the event of an investigation.

Residents who opt in would provide their contact information to the police department so that if the cameras catch anything that could be evidence, the police can ask permission to use their footage.

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"It's like a Neighborhood Watch on steroids," Eipper said. "Because now, even when you're gone, you're able to watch and help your neighborhood that way."

According to the department's annual report, SAFECAM had 127 participants in 2022, the year it began. The department has not released data for 2023 yet.

Eipper stated that WFPD rarely requests footage from the companies or cloud services that store camera footage. Instead, Wichita Falls residents often share their footage to help solve crimes in their communities.

"When people get cameras, I think they generally want to use them," Eipper said. "Especially if a crime is against them."

WFPD and Crimestoppers often work together using security footage from businesses or individuals who need help solving a crime.

Eipper said detectives in the department will send security footage around to identify suspects before releasing it to the public. If no one in the department can identify the person or people in the footage, police turn to the community for help.

"It's definitely effective," Eipper said, citing the 2022 Stripes murder as an example. "We had a video inside, and we put it out to [the community]."

In that case, an ex-girlfriend of the suspect identified him by the shoes she had given him, leading police to an arrest and eventual conviction from her information.

It is difficult to determine how effectively the police department's use of security footage affects its crime statistics and solve rates, since many factors influence those numbers.

"The camera footage helps with the investigation and prosecution of the crime because you just can't beat that evidence," Eipper explained.

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Above all, Eipper attributed the department's success to the detectives, attorneys and community that support its work.

"It's the citizens, our media family and us working together," he said. "And the more we can get all of us working together, the safer our city will be."

Stacker contributed to this report.

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