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Digital eyes on campus: VCU’s security camera system captures evidence in more than 1,000 incidents

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VCU Police Lt. Nick Hill reviews security camera footage. Hill was instrumental in implementing cameras in hundreds of strategic locations throughout both of VCU’s Richmond campuses.

Early on the morning of Aug. 18, 2015, patrons gathered outside a late-night restaurant on North Harrison Street in Richmond. College students were back in the city as classes at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park Campus were set to start that day.

An altercation broke out in the crowd, and one man with a firearm fired two shots. He was close to the people nearby and quickly fled North Harrison Street by car.

VCU Police arrived and issued text alerts for a “shooting.” They texted out an “all clear” once they determined that while shots had been fired in the air, no one was injured and a threat was no longer imminent.

An investigation began immediately.

Sgt. Duane Thorp heads VCU Police investigations and promptly pulled security camera footage from cameras recording activity on the streets around VCU.

Footage from multiple angles near the restaurant provided exactly what Thorp needed to pinpoint a suspect – clear images of the area along with a view of the license plate on the suspect’s vehicle.  

Within days, Thorp and his detectives had a suspect; the man was eventually charged with brandishing a firearm and willful discharge of a firearm in public. VCUPD posted the arrest update on its Facebook page and alert.vcu.edu to close the loop on communications following the initial text messages – messages that understandably put people on heightened alert.

Potential criminals should know we’re watching.

“Footage from the cameras was the key to this case,” said VCUPD Chief John Venuti. “People don’t always understand the value of this technology behind the scenes, but locking up the people who cause a threat is an obvious benefit. We don’t want those individuals coming back and potential criminals should know we’re watching.”

Parents, students, faculty and staff thanked police on Facebook for keeping VCU safe.

VCU Police were thankful for the cameras that captured essential footage to solve the crime.

As of February 2016, VCU Police has used video and photographic evidence from the system for more than 1,000 incidents – a significant milestone for the department. Incidents include, but are not limited to, car accidents, bicycle thefts, robberies and assaults.

Return on investment

VCUPD detectives can look back at camera footage to find suspects in property thefts.
VCUPD detectives can look back at camera footage to find suspects in property thefts.

In 2012, with the support of the university’s administration, VCUPD began an aggressive endeavor to replace an aging security camera system with a robust, high-definition system. At the time, photos were grainy and unreliable; there was no central portal for dispatchers and officers to access footage in a timely manner.

During the next year, hundreds of cameras were strategically placed throughout the Monroe Park and MCV Campuses. The $2.6 million upgraded system was designed and implemented by Sycom and was a collaboration between police, VCU Facilities Management and VCU Technology Services. Cameras went live in August 2013.

Every time footage can be used officers and staff refer to it as a “camera win.”

“A substantial investment was made for this system and I believe it has proven to be an effective crime prevention tool and a law enforcement tool,” Venuti said. “Anecdotally we know word has gotten around to those with bad intentions. At VCU, there’s a good chance we’ll catch them on camera. We may not always get them committing a crime, but we can see them arriving at, or leaving, a crime scene.”

The system is passive, which means camera feeds are not actively monitored 24/7. While cameras can be used for live monitoring, officers primarily pull footage from a specific location once a crime or accident is reported.

In the latest, bi-annual perception of safety survey issued to the VCU community, 96.4 percent of students, faculty and staff surveyed reported feeling “safe” or “very safe” on VCU’s campuses. Police attribute at least part of those feelings to respondents knowing the camera system is in place.

The number of robberies in VCUPD’s core campus jurisdiction have dropped since 2013. Police believe this is partly because potential criminals know they’re on camera at VCU. The department has also implemented strategic patrol plans and addressed safety issues where people feel less safe.

In some investigations, VCU Police have released suspect photos on social media to recruit the public and media’s help in identifying suspects. Richmond-area residents, whether or not they’re affiliated with VCU, want to help. The VCU community feels safer knowing when cases have been resolved.

“As a father to college-aged kids, I fully understand that parents want to know a university is taking every possible measure to protect their children,” Venuti said. “This was a sound financial investment with tangible results.”

Keeping a tally on success

Using evidence from the system, we’ve solved robberies, crashes, hit-and-runs, larcenies, bike thefts, auto thefts and assaults.

To date, VCUPD has had 1,047 “wins” attributed to the security cameras. So what exactly is a “camera win” in police lingo?

For Venuti, a “win” is anytime his officers can pull usable, photographic or video evidence. Camera system pictures are clear enough to put into facial recognition software to catch repeat offenders.

“Using evidence from the system, we’ve solved robberies, crashes, hit-and-runs, larcenies, bike thefts, auto thefts and assaults. The Richmond Police Department has used footage to supplement death investigations and track their suspects’ movements through VCU’s footprint in the city,” Venuti said.

VCU security camera footage has been used to capture vehicular accidents.
VCU security camera footage has been used to capture vehicular accidents.

Wins for VCU Police include the arrest of 337 individuals. At least 435 warrants have been issued with some suspects being issued multiple warrants. Video evidence from VCU has been shared with other agencies 246 times and clips are regularly made available to Richmond Police.

“Sometimes just a face, a clear shot of someone’s clothing, the model of a car or a license plate number is a starting point in a case with no viable witnesses or leads that have otherwise run dry,” Venuti said.

The system has also weeded out false reports of criminal activity; 29 cases have been unfounded, including two robberies and an abduction. Detectives took statements from reported victims but camera footage determined that the reports were fabricated.

“There was an incredible amount of logistical and technical planning that went into this upgrade and it was a collaborative partnership between departments at VCU and Sycom,” Venuti said.

VCU’s security camera system has been recognized nationally. In summer 2015, Venuti and representatives with Sycom were honored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The project received the Michael Shanahan Award for Excellence in Public/Private Cooperation.

“Our goal is to make VCU the safest university in the United States and the camera system has been part of that continuous effort,” Venuti said. “We’ve got 50,000 sets of human eyes and ears watching our campuses and the cameras supplement a community that is already very focused on keeping VCU secure.”

 

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VCU Partnered with SyCom and Cisco for a Massive Upgrade to Its Physical Security/Video Solution.