Lights, camera—captured!

Senior Sergeant Eric De Los Santos

Austin Police ­Department’s Violent Crimes II–Domestic ­Violence/CRASH unit

Austin police are employing game cameras to catch stalkers and those who violate protective orders in the act—and gather fantastic video evidence in the process.

Scout cameras, also known as game cameras, have been used for years by ranchers and hunters to photograph livestock, game, and trespassers. Applying this same technology  in protective order, bond condition violation, and stalking cases has proven to be an effective yet inexpensive means to obtain evidence of these violations and behavior.
    In the summer of 2014, the Austin Police Department, in an effort to seek more aggressive approaches to domestic violence prevention, and with an eye on budget considerations, ran a three-month pilot program. We considered and implemented numerous approaches for the pilot program—all of them were simple, and the department did not spend any additional funds on them. One such idea was to install sensor-activated scout cameras (also called game cameras) at the homes of several victims of domestic violence and stalking. We hoped to catch violators in the act and snap photographic evidence of their crimes. (More about the specifics is below.)
    A review of the pilot results was promising. Three months of operations resulted in a 5-percent decrease in domestic violence aggravated assaults during the same time period of 2014 and in previous years. There was also a decrease of more than 100 bond condition violations per month (down from an average of 267 violations to 149 violations) during the pilot period. (It’s also interesting to note that bond condition violations returned to pre-pilot averages a month after the much-publicized conclusion of the pilot.)
    Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay reviewed the results and on January 1, 2015, made the pilot program a permanent unit consisting of four patrol officers, including me. The unit is called Coordinated Responses to Abuse for Safe Homes, or CRASH.
    The information gleaned from the pilot program indicated that CRASH needed these sensor-activated cameras at a protectee’s residence. The process of obtaining these cameras for testing included contacting several manufacturers of scout cameras and explaining our objectives; each graciously provided us with a model that met our requirements to test. Those requirements were:
•    day and night photographic capability,
•    multiple shot and video capability,
•    date and time stamp embedding,
•    sensor activated,
•    able to withstand various weather conditions,
•    battery life, and
•    no detectable flash at night
    The camera that performed the best for us was the Bushnell Aggressor, priced at $165.49, at the government rate. In addition to the actual camera, we tested an assortment of rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries (each scout cam takes eight AA batteries to operate). We found that regular batteries sufficed, but they did not perform with the consistency of lithium or nickel-cadmium (NiCad) batteries. This was a painful lesson to learn when one of our scout cameras with regular batteries shut down minutes before a drive-by shooting of a protectee’s residence. Had the batteries not failed, the camera would likely have captured the incident. We finally opted to use the NiCad rechargeable batteries and quality chargers to ensure the batteries remained properly conditioned for longer life. We now average as many as 4,000 day and night photographs in a three-day period with acceptable battery levels remaining.
    We established a protocol for the use of the scout cameras, as we have a limited number. Conditions for the use of the scout cams include:
•    a high-threat case,
•    cooperative victim and household,
•    a signed consent form that warns the victim and adult household members that any criminal activity captured by the camera can be used against them,
•    apartment complex managers must give permission for open area installations,
•    location allows cam(s) to be hidden, and
•    no consent required for public area installations
    Typical length of deployment at a residence has been a week to two weeks, and we set that time-frame according to the level of threat to the protectee and/or if the suspect had been arrested. The very first time we deployed a scout camera, it captured images of a suspect violating a protective order after just two days, and we obtained a warrant for the violation.
    Since that first deployment, the scout cameras have been capturing images of suspects violating or exhibiting stalking behavior on a somewhat regular basis. Sometimes we’ve even captured footage of violations the same night the camera was deployed! One memorable capture involved a serial sexual assault suspect. Our Sex Crimes Unit requested a scout camera be set up at the home of a woman who had been sexually assaulted. The scout camera captured the suspect returning the very next night. The DNA match and clear photos with date and time stamps captured by the scout camera make for a great case to present, though it has yet to go to trial.
    Another memorable case involved a stalking victim with a high-risk assessment. Three cameras were deployed at her residence, including one in the backyard. A few nights later, two cameras captured images of a suspect prowling around the front of her home at 3 a.m. The third camera was stolen the same night the images were captured, but two cameras were left in place and checked every other night for new images. After three weeks of nothing unusual, the cameras captured 60-plus images of the suspect prowling the house at 2:30 a.m. Based on the timestamps, we were able to determine the suspect stayed in the backyard for two hours. CRASH officers searched the yard and found where the suspect had defecated during his stay back there, and he had left ear and fingerprint impressions on the rear sliding glass door. The suspect was interviewed and confessed; he also admitted that he knew his stalking behavior was escalating and he feared that he would eventually be violent. A warrant for stalking was obtained.
    While nothing is more effective than officers on surveillance for spotting a violation and reacting immediately, most departments lack the financial and personnel resources to deploy multiple officers at multiple locations on a 24-7 schedule. Scout cameras allow for surveillance of multiple locations around the clock. Officers go to camera locations to switch out batteries and SD cards on a daily to every-other-day basis. Our protocol for the initial installment takes approximately 30 minutes, and swapping out batteries and SD cards takes 10 to 15 minutes, and that includes a check of the area for a suspect first. Officers have the capability to review the images in the field or in the office, and upon seeing violations, they arrange for arrest warrants, usually on the same day. In terms of preventing violent crime, scout cameras are a low-cost option (compared to more officers in the field). Of all the tools and resources that CRASH has and is constantly developing, the scout camera is the simplest, cheapest, and most effective tool in our post-response arsenal. It is ideal for both small and large departments, and it yields results for all kinds of crimes, such as sex assaults, thefts, narcotics, and gangs.
    Another benefit of the scout cameras is the interaction that takes place between the CRASH officer and domestic violence victim. Victims are reporting and writing that they feel safer and more empowered because they are working with these officers to increase their safety and develop evidence against their abusers. They feel like they are retaking control of their lives—and they are telling their friends about the program and how it’s helping. Perhaps this encourages others who are in abusive relationships to seek assistance.

Editor’s note: Senior Sergeant Eric De Los Santos has been with the Austin Police Department for 27 years. His work experience includes seven years on patrol, five years in homicide, and a total of 13 years with the Organized Crime Division. He is currently assigned to Violent Crimes II–Domestic Violence/CRASH unit and may be reached at [email protected]