First crime solved using new security camera system

Today I got a great call from Oakland Police:
A photo of a car involved in a hit and run had been instrumental in solving the case.

The complete story:

About 3 weeks ago, a car parked on one of our streets was hit by a car.
After apologizing the driver took of without leaving the required
contact and insurance information. (This is a Hit and Run under California Vehicle
Code 20002(c) ) 2 of our neighbors who had witnessed the
episode, but had not been able to see the license of the hit and run driver.
They called the police, then they called me.

My wife and I were in Santa Cruz at the time, and they reached me on my
cell phone, The witness gave me an accurate description of the vehicle and
a 5 minute time window. After the build-in privacy delay had passed I was able
to remotely examine the pictures on our internet based server (in the
cloud) from Santa Cruz, and from the description pick a matching car that I sent via email to the witness. They confirmed that this was the car and showed the picture with a clearly visible license plate to the officer when he arrived at the scene.

Hit and Run driver fleeing the scene

Hit and Run driver fleeing the scene - Actual Criminal Caught on Camera - This photo solved the crime - Click to enlarge

By comparing the license plate with our list of trusted license plates I was able to determine that the car did not belong to a neighbor.

That same night I got the Police report number and I sent an
electronic high-resolution copy of the photo to my contacts at the
Oakland police.

This morning the investigating officer called me and said, that they
had located the driver using our photo of the vehicle and license
When confronted, the driver admitted to everything.

Police considers the case as solved, and tells me that the photo was the key piece of evidence. The victim is VERY happy with our neighborhood security camera solution.

In the 2 months since our system went officially online we have sent photos to
the police about 5 times, and now we have our 1st solved case. With 5:1 odds, we could not be happier.


Visit By Captain Israel

Oakland PD Captain Jeffrey Israel comes by

Saturday was a big day for our neighborhood group, Captain Israel had seen our photos submitted as evidence to the Police and wanted to come by and see the system for himself.

He was greeted by the Chairperson of our neighborhood group and myself.

Captain Israel arrives, click to enlarge, you can even read the "CA EXEMPT" on the License plate.

Captain Israel arrives, click to enlarge, you can even read the "CA EXEMPT" on the License plate.

The first order of business was to show him our recording of him entering our neighborhood.

The Camera had been well hidden and he had not seen it.

The license plate was readable in all the photos.

We did a short demonstration of our system and discussed when it was prudent to call the police. Answer: Every time.

 Advice from Captain Israel

1) If someone knocks on your door at 3:00 am in the morning, call the police immediately, that is a time with low call volume, and typically the police will be able to respond right away.

2) If the Alarm goes of in the middle of the night and the burglars flee, call it in immediately, it is an attempted Burglary and needs to be logged in their database so that the police can determine criminal patterns.

3) For both incidents it is a great help for the police if the neighborhood surveillance photos can be tied to a police report number, so again make sure you report it every time.

Make sure your Camera are lit and visible at night.

Make sure your Camera are lit and visible at night.

4) When placing real or decoy cameras on the outside on your property, place it where it is lit at night, so that the criminals can clearly see the camera also at night.

5) Make sure your internal list of trusted license plates is up-to-date so that you don’t report a neighbor to the police.

Helping others

Captain Israel asked us to share our know-how with other neighborhood groups, and introduced us to another group which is about to start a neighborhood Camera Project. Naturally we agreed to help on the spot.

Last was the obligatory Photo Opportunity

Captain of Police Jeffrey Israel  and Jesper Jurcenoks

Captain of Police Jeffrey Israel and Jesper Jurcenoks

Expectations From Security Cameras

Set Realistic Expectations

Some people think that Neighborhood security surveillance is a silver bullet that will solve all problems related to crime. It is not, it is but one step in a neighborhood crime fighting initiative.

What to expect in regards to Prevention

Visible signs of Security Camera activity, such as signs and visible cameras, has a measurable preventive effect on premeditated crimes like burglary, robbery and theft, but has absolutely no preventive effect on crimes of passion like public drunkenness and fights.

Video Surveillance improves crime solving rates under certain circumstances.

Example of incorrect use of surveillance cameras.

The public surveillance cameras Tiburon, Ca, installed February 2010, has only contributed slightly to crime solving, the main problem being that the cameras are placed in High traffic areas. Specifically the problem is that when examining cameras recordings, the suspect pool becomes too big to of any practical use.

Quiet neighborhood streets are perfect

Low traffic areas or areas with low traffic of suspects have a better chance of isolating suspects and therefore solving the crimes. The quiet suburban street – a burglar favorite – is also the place that has the best return of investment for a neighborhood camera solution, especially when combined with individual alarm systems.

Does footage always lead to conviction? 

No – most of the video produced will be considered circumstantial evidence, e.g. images of  the suspect entering and/or leaving the neighborhood around the time of the crime, will help in the investigation and together with other pieces of evidence will lead to a conviction.

What footage is needed for Conviction.

In order to get a burglary conviction based on surveillance video alone the video will need to have all of the following:

  1. 100% certain identification: i.e. clear unmasked face shoot
  2. The breaking and entering.
  3. The suspect leaving with items of value that are clearly identifiable.
  4. Clear chain of evidence of the footage.
  5. Timestamp on the video
  6. Video obtained without violating the suspects constitutional rights. (see article on legal considerations)

Example of footage not enough for conviction alone.

The following photos is not enough to convict by itself.

  1. Suspect arriving on the street, license plate readable
  2. Suspect entering the driveway of victim
  3. Suspect leaving the driveway of victim 10 minutes later.

It is however enough for an investigator to pay a visit to the suspect, and if we are lucky the suspect is on probation or parole letting any peace officer in California perform a warrantless and suspicionless search and seizure.

If the same vehicle and person has been linked to other burglaries it could be enough for a search warrant and/or an arrest.


Don’t expect that the police can rush out and make an arrest based on your video surveillance, do expect that submitting your video to the police could be the lead that changes a case from unsolvable to solvable leading to apprehension of the criminals.

Don't expect the Police to make an arrest based on your images alone. Actual Camera recording of Police Car at 3:00 am with one of our Cameras, click to zoom in and read the license plate.

Additional reading

Parole and Probation searches – Article – Police Magazine

Collecting Trusted License Plates

One of the problems with having a Neighborhood video surveillance system is the number of unknown vehicles that show up on any recording.

For any such system to be valuable, the neighborhood group managing the system has to filter out the trusted vehicles in order to locate the suspicious vehicles.

Inherently trusted vehicles

The Firetruck is inherently trusted

The Firetruck is inherently trusted

Some vehicle comes with a certain level of trust based solely their apperance:

  • Police cars
  • Ambulances
  • Firetrucks
  • Garbage Trucks
  • Cement Trucks
  • Fedex
  • UPS
  • USPS

Not so trusted vehicles.

At the other end of the scale are vehicles that are suspicious just because they don’t fit the standard of the neighborhood: This could be because that they are too expenses, too flashy, to loud, too fast, too slow, too colorful, too dilapidated, too old. etc.

The bland majority

Between these two poles are a large number of vehicles that are just ordinary: these are the cars that the bad guys choose when they want to blend in.

On a typical day we have more than 100 unique such cars passing our camera. The only way to be able to distinguish the good cars from the bad is by having a list of trusted license plates.

If you live in an area without garages or with a shared parking structure, the task can be accomplished by just walking with a camera phone a couple of times.

However if you, like us, live in an area were many people park their cars inside garages you will have to engage the owners. The good news is that this actually increases security awareness and the feeling of community, core features of a good Neighborhood security group

  1. Start by sending out emails asking people for License plates
  2. then send out 1 or 2 more nagging emails to get some more addresses.
  3. Finally make a list of all the addresses where you are still missing the licenses and go door-to-door asking people to open the garages.

Where to record the vehicle information.

Some people will find that putting car model/make and license plate on your neighborhood roster makes them uncomfortable.
Most people find that having a trusted vehicle list that is independent of the Roster and is only accessible by a small group of trusted neighbors is the way to go.
Many people will volunteer color, Make and Model in addition to the License plate, some will only give you the license plate. Some will volunteer extra information like year, accessories (like roof-rack and stickers). A good system will have a way to capture this information.

For most group the list is so simple that it can be kept in a single spreadsheet, however if you have more than one person viewing and updating a file based sheet, you will have a hard time making sure everyone has an updated copy

We found that using a hosted shared spreadsheet was the best solution, and are currently using the free Google Docs spreadsheet.


Result of Neighborhood Security Camera Pilot

We have just finished the pilot installation of our Neighborhood Security Camera solution.

Pilot Requirements
Pilot had to uncover if it would be possible to make a solution that could satisfy the following requirements:

  1. Be Legal
  2. Be affordable (both Startup and Maintenance)
  3. Installed by the neighborhood members themselves not professionals
  4. Store the recording in the ‘Cloud’ to allow distributed access
  5. Evidence quality recordings that would allow manual reading of license plates Day and Night.
  6. Determine which software should be used for review of the recordings.

The Process
We have evaluated a number of cameras, low cost, medium cost and high cost. The cameras were tested in live setup in our neighborhoods under a number of conditions both day and night, rain and shine  and the famous Oakland hills fog.

The Surveillance of public space presented a number of legal and practical challenges that we had to address.

The distributed nature of a residential neighborhood compared to most home and commercial installations meant that we had to solve a number of logistical challenges that had not  been solved before on a limited budget.



  • Cheap cameras don’t work at all.
  • Medium priced cameras  work during the day but not at night.
  • Only Expensive cameras work both at day and night,
  • Infrared Illuminators are required for night recordings.
  • Legal issues can be solved.
  • It is possible to coordinate recordings from multiple residences on a budget.
  • We could not find any suitable Commercial or Open Source software.
  • Cloud Storage provider is found, but not tested (due to lack of software)

Readable License plate in Thick fog. Click to enlarge. Test car - not a Criminal!

Night+Rain+Fog image of readable License plate. Click to enlarge. Actual photo

Real car driving by Camera at Night with Rain and Fog. Click to enlarge. Test car - not a criminal!