Doorbell cameras are providing valuable evidence for Calgary police investigations, but a local privacy expert said citizens need to be wary of constant surveillance being normalized.
Earlier this week, a crime and safety forum was hosted by Ward 6 Calgary city councillor, Jeff Davison. According to an FAQ and overview of the meeting posted to Davison’s website, the Calgary Police Service (CPS) spoke of the “uptick in break-and-enter cases.”
CPS presented information this week that there had been a 51 per cent increase in break-and-enter activity across Calgary in the first seven months of 2019, in comparison with the five-year average.
The topic of doorbell camera footage was discussed at the Ward 6 forum and the role it might play in aiding police investigations. The FAQ said CPS encourages residents to submit the footage.
Access to doorbell footage has had a significant impact on policing: Sgt. Crippen
Frequently, Calgary police media information about recent crime comes with images from a citizen doorbell camera or closed-circuit television (CCTV) feeds.
Sgt. Doug Crippen with the CPS Centralized Break and Enter Unit said he estimates that as many as 30 per cent of Calgary homes are equipped with some sort of home security system that includes CCTV or a doorbell camera.
He said access to this footage has had a significant impact on policing in the city.
“We’re seeing great success with it. When it comes to court and presenting good quality evidence that video capture is essential,” he said.
“Where it’s become really important for us is in presenting that information to the offenders. So, it’s pretty tough to dispute that they were committing a crime when it was caught on video.”
Aside from specific at-the-door evidence, Crippen said good quality video evidence in a community allows them to better piece together the sequence of events around a serious crime.
It also reduces the resource load when officers are investigating ongoing criminal activity in an area.
“Instead of canvassing 300 homes, we might only need to canvass 20 or 30 until we catch the event on camera,” Crippen said.
“We can paint the story pretty quickly as to what transpired and that gives us evidence to now proceed down a certain path.”
‘An agent of the state’
Sharon Polsky, President of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada, and former vice-president of the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association here in Alberta, said she understands the significant benefit this footage has on policing, but cautions that we’re closing in on constant surveillance that could make citizens “an agent of the state.”
“Whatever happened to the nosy neighbor, a neighbor who looks out the front window who knows who the neighbors are, who speaks to strangers,” Polsky said.
“The very simple human interaction often is much more effective. And certainly less privacy intrusive. If we know our neighbors, we know whose car belongs and when that car doesn’t really belong.
“Technology doesn’t stop crime, right?”
Polsky understands the constant pressures city police are under. Workload is increasing and resources dwindling – especially on the heels of Calgary police taking a hit in a recent $60 million cut to the city budget.
“When you’re surveilling an entire population, based on ‘what if’, that helps us catch somebody?” Polsky said.
“If you track everybody long enough, you’re sure to find them doing something they ought to not do.”
Whether it’s cars being photographed or surveilled on city roads, our cars being tracked by Bluetooth to provide driving times, or facial recognition being used through provincial drivers licences, Polsky said it’s everywhere.
But it’s not perfect.
Polsky pointed to a recent UK story where facial recognition yielded a 92 per cent false positive rate. She also said some companies are pushing doorbell cameras through city police forces. The captured images are run through facial recognition programs, social media databases and corporate directories, Polsky said.
Doorbell camera: Another set of eyes in Calgary communities
Crippen said the privacy aspect is real. They don’t want to capture private information or what’s happening in private homes. He firmly believes it improves public safety.
He’s aware of police organizations partnering with doorbell cam companies. The information from those cameras is typically from public spaces, not private residences, Crippen said.
“The people that we traditionally deal with, that are victims of this crime, I don’t think would ever have a problem supplying that information,” Crippen said.
They’re looking for offenders operating in the public domain, Crippen said. Or, upon the submission of evidence from a home or business owner through CCTV or a doorbell camera.
Crippen also said potential offenders will see the doorbell camera equipment or the security sign and find a different opportunity.
In the end, it’s having access to the information when there may not be a human eyewitness.
“The police can’t be everywhere all the time. It’s our communities that have the best eyes, and quite frankly, the cameras are yet another set of eyes,” Crippen said.