Plotted plant caper surveillance footage

Surveillance footage from a Charleston man's external security camera at his Wagener Terrace home in February 2018. File/Provided

As part of a new effort to bolster neighborhood crime watches, Charleston police are asking residents and local business owners with exterior security cameras to register their devices with the city.

Those with forward-facing, exterior camera systems have the option to provide location information via an online non-public database maintained by the city.

The initiative, which was announced last month, is intended to minimize the number of steps authorities take to locate surveillance footage and witnesses when investigating criminal activity in a given area. 

Charleston police do not have direct access to the camera's contents, at least not without your consent, said Charleston Police Department Lt. Peter Farrell. He added that investigators would previously have to devote valuable time to canvassing neighborhoods, asking those with relevant surveillance footage to come forward.

Now, with the new database, police immediately have knowledge of who has access to footage that could help yield clues for investigators.

“This is an opportunity to use 21st century technology to build upon the traditional neighborhood crime watch programs,” Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds said in a media statement.

The three-step online registration form can be accessed through the city's website and asks users whether their camera, or cameras, are exterior and where they are located on a map. After the registration is submitted, an officer from the department will reach out to confirm the information.

It's not a revelation that video surveillance footage is a vital crime fighting and prevention tool. But based on how frequently authorities generally rely on this tool, Charleston police wanted to create a means where this information could be easily accessed by investigators.

"And I will tell you that, in some crimes, when detectives look at a video, they already know who it is," Farrell said. "It's amazing what video will do for you in terms of getting a head start on solving a case."

Nearly a year ago, it was a home surveillance system that helped make a break in a theft case that had captivated the Wagener Terrace neighborhood in downtown Charleston. Under the cover of darkness, someone was moving from porch to porch swiping potted plants.

It was the footage captured by the man's home surveillance camera that provided police with the assurance they needed in order to make an arrest.

Charleston police are not alone in local law enforcement agencies relying on security camera registration programs. The North Charleston Police Department launched its program this month.

North Charleston Police Department Deputy Chief Karen Cordray said the idea for the program was born from interactions with civilians across the department's social media accounts — people sharing surveillance footage they deemed helpful to community Facebook pages.

"What we found was that a lot of our citizens would be posting videos and making us aware of things happening," she said. "We were noticing our citizens were so willing to share their videos in crime watch groups. They really were just wanting to help each other and help us and make our community safer."

Cordray said that despite unveiling their own camera registration program within a month of Charleston's, the timing was coincidental. The deputy chief said she and other department officials consulted with leaders of neighborhood associations, as well as the Tampa (Florida) Police Department, in developing its own security camera registration.

Tampa's camera registration database is entering its second year. Project Register Every Camera was just getting off the ground in October 2017 when a working-class neighborhood northeast of downtown Tampa was terrorized by a man authorities described as a serial killer who fatally shot four people at random, including the daughter of a Berkeley County man.

Although the program itself was not necessarily instrumental in helping authorities make an arrest in the case, it was surveillance footage acquired from residences that helped investigators determine the route the gunman walked, said Stephen Hegarty, a police spokesman.

Hegarty said participation in the program took off after it was publicized how instrumental video surveillance footage was as an investigatory tool.

Authorities at each of these agencies all said that perhaps the greatest misconception surrounding the roll out of these registries is that nobody is required to grant access to their private surveillance footage.

Simply registering your equipment does not mean that police will have access to the camera's content — it just means police will know where to look, they said.

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Reach Michael Majchrowicz at 843-937-5591. Follow him on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.