Investigators are discovering surveillance cameras are now one of the most important eyes on the street and fast becoming a key tool in catching suspects.
When a Holbrook bank was robbed, police got images of the getaway car from cameras at a nearby parking lot.
When a 52-year-old man on a bike was struck by a hit-and-run driver in Stoughton, Detective James E. O’Connor checked out surveillance cameras along Park Street to see if the collision was caught on tape.
When a Brockton bank was robbed, police scanned surveillance cameras at nearby businesses for clues.
And when two men attacked a convenience store clerk in Abington, the rolling cameras captured images of the suspects.
“The cameras, they work,” said Tony Fadel, manager of the 7-Eleven in Abington, where two brothers were caught on tape robbing the store. “You can get very good pictures.”
No matter where you go, there’s a good chance a surveillance camera is watching — and police say those “eyes on the street” are now one of the biggest tools in catching crooks.
But how much is too much?
Privacy and civil rights advocates have their own take on the proliferation of surveillance cameras.
“Walking around in any major city, or even midsize city, the odds are pretty good that you’re probably being picked up by one or more cameras,” said Christopher Ott, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
And while the cameras do help in solving some crimes, there is little evidence that cameras act as a deterrent, as often claimed, said Ott.
“They’re not a magic solution for crime,” he said.
There are about 6 million surveillance cameras across the country in retail stores, mostly to catch shoplifters and prevent the theft of an estimated more than $35 million in goods per day, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention.
The camera systems, depending on the quality, can cost from a couple of hundred dollars to nearly $10,000.
“The better the quality, the better it can be used,” West Bridgewater Police Chief Donald Clark said.
The cameras can be found at parking lots, supermarkets, convenience stores, clothing stores, check-cashing businesses, outside schools and atop poles in communities throughout the region. Some homeowners have installed cameras as a safety measure.
“A lot of people would be surprised, even I’m surprised, at how many surveillance cameras there are out there,” Avon Police Chief Warren Phillips said.
Law enforcement authorities say when eyewitnesses are reluctant to talk, these electronic “silent witnesses” — surveillance cameras — can provide key evidence in everything from murder to shoplifting. Many of those images are posted on law enforcement Web sites, such as massmostwanted.org, as well as newspaper, television and radio sites.
“There is always a better chance than not that the crime was captured on some type of a camera,” said Brockton Lt. John Crowley, chief of detectives.
Holbrook’s acting police chief, William D. Marble Jr., said the cameras can give the investigations an extra boost. “We are looking for any help we can get,” Marble said.
Last year, a man who slipped out of Hannaford Supermarket in Easton with hundreds of dollars worth of food was later caught trying to steal more than $1,000 worth of electronics from Target. He was caught on tape each time.
Another man suspected in a string of thefts from hospitals throughout the state was arrested after investigators identified him through surveillance video.
“When there are no eyewitnesses, cameras are your next best friend,” said Stoughton Detective James O’Connor. “Sometimes they can be better. Depending on the situation, witnesses can remember things differently. The videotape never lies.”
In Brockton, a video camera captured a murder suspect inside a convenience store minutes before the killing. The video was shown to the jury during the man’s trial; he was convicted.
A man who broke a window at the store was convicted and sent to jail. Another man who tried to hold up the business is also in jail. And two brothers who attacked a clerk and then robbed the place are now locked up, awaiting trial. All of them were caught on surveillance tape.
“It works to catch them,” Fadel, Abington 7-Eleven’s manager, said about the cameras. “It is worth it.”
But the ACLU says the public should be asking more questions about the government’s use of surveillance cameras.
In some cases, it’s possible that high-tech cameras could be used to spy inside people’s homes, said Ott, the communications director.
“I think we need to ask the question of what kind of society we want to be — do we want to move more in the direction of being a ‘Big Brother’ society, where everyone is under surveillance all the time?” Ott said.
“We encourage people to ask a lot of questions before the cameras go in, make sure know what they’re getting into,” he said.
Maureen Boyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Kyle Alspach contributed to this report.
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