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Computers Sort Video Files to Find Criminals

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Computers Sort Video Files to Find Criminals


Computers Sort Video Files to Find Criminals

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The latest in police technology could be called YouTube for perps. Police are trying to search thousands of videos for suspected criminals photographed by security cameras. They input specific criteria like the kind of a weapon or a particular geographical area and the computer determines if any of the images are a match. The problem is that there is just too much video to sort through.

From member station WVXU, Ann Thompson reports.

ANN THOMPSON: Even when running the simplest of errands, there's a pretty good chance you'll be caught on camera. Police say on average a person in this country shows up on a security camera more than 15 times a day. It's easy to see why as officer Mark Williams(ph) points out cameras installed near the federal building in downtown Cincinnati.

Officer MARK WILLIAMS (Cincinnati Police Department): But once you get to this location, you've got these three setup right here. And I'm pretty sure those will pan all the way down, because if you look under your next intersection down there, you can see another setup right there.

THOMPSON: Some look like cameras, others are disguised as lights on poles.

Officer WILLIAMS: Sometimes you've got to really look because they're not as obvious as you might think. There is more up here on the left.

THOMPSON: Police use video from public and private surveillance cameras, as well as in-car police recording devices, cell phones and other sources to identify criminal suspects.

Specialized editing equipment allows them to clarify, stabilize and enlarge the images. But there are so many images that police are being inundated with video evidence. The International Association of Chiefs of Police is addressing that problem by establishing three regional forensic video labs - one each in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Fort Worth, Texas, and Cincinnati, Ohio. A fourth is possible in Washington state.

Initially, these centers will serve as a clearinghouse. Later this year, the regional labs will begin uploading the crime scene recordings to a national database housed in Virginia. Project manager Mike Fergus says police will soon be able to conduct investigations by calling up specific characteristics.

MR. MIKE FERGUS (Project Director, IACP): You can look for crimes that were just occurring in a certain region. You'll be able to look for - use a certain kind of weapon or - particular type of business or individual. You'll be able to put in whatever kind of search criteria you want.

THOMPSON: The use of forensic video has grown rapidly that the Cincinnati Police Department editing suite has gone from a closet to an entire room. Standing in that room, homicide sergeant, Rudy Gruenke(ph) says, these videos are increasingly being used to build criminal cases.

RUDY GRUENKE, (Sergeant, Cincinnati): Through that, we're able to take the videotape that captures the crime and digitize it and look at it frame by frame, or field by field depending on how it is recorded.

THOMPSON: A number of groups don't like this crime fighting approach including some New York actors who call themselves the surveillance camera players. They travel the country pointing out hidden surveillance and poking fun by performing in front of the cameras for those monitoring them. On his groups web site, Bill Brown, list the camera location for some cities. He worries that it's to easy for police to make mistakes.

MR. BILL BROWN (Actor, Surveillance Camera Players): Because of the vast amount of footage, there'll be false positives. People falsely identified, people falsely unidentified and it will then, again, make the cameras not worth the money that's being spent on them.

THOMPSON: But police counter - the only reason to be concern about cameras is if you're breaking the law. As the number of cameras increase, so will be the demand for analyzing the data. Evidence Technology Magazine reports that the University of Indianapolis has just opened the nations first lab dedicated to training people on how to analyze forensic video.

For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.

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