Police Ponder DVRs and Evidence Collection

Like many businesses, my organization, the Oxnard (Calif.) Police Department, is looking to update our antiquated time-lapse, VHS black-and-white CCTV system with a new digital video recording (DVR) package. Attending a recent International Security Conference & Expo (ISC), a colleague of mine and I were amazed at the sheer number of DVR solutions. The typical DVR is able to take a lot of information, but getting the data out is a completely different story.

For example, during the investigation of an attempted murder case at a gas station in March, Oxnard police officials discovered that the particular DVR that was retrieved at the location was not able to export images and video.

Important issues relating to evidence collection must be addressed by DVR manufacturers as well as their sales staff, primarily by establishing a universal, nonproprietary standard for exporting files from the product.

Proprietary Code in DVR Prohibits Image Retrieval

The industry’s focus as to why DVR systems are installed in the first place seems to have been lost.

That attempted robbery is a good example. During this time, the police department’s information systems analyst, Mark Guagliardo, had just returned from the ISC when he was called in by investigators to retrieve the recorded evidence from the DVR. He thought it would be a snap, but he was wrong.

Guagliardo later discovered that the DVR did not have the option of exporting data or for configuring the video card. After hours of tweaking, Guagliardo was able to export an .avi (Audio Video Interleave) file of the incident, but the proprietary code used by the manufacturer prohibited him from seeing anything but an error message.

What he got out of the box was useable for general identification purposes, but due to the video card’s compression during export, the footage could not be processed through the department’s video forensics software.

Manufacturers Need to Keep Real-Life Scenarios in Mind

For the record, it’s not like we saw this problem coming. When Guagliardo and I were at the ISC, exporting data was the furthest thing from our minds.

In years past, when it came time for police to review the contents of a recording and use it as evidence, all officials had to do was pop out a VHS tape. Because of this, thousands of people have been convicted, and many more have pled guilty rather than tempting their fate before a jury that could review the footage of the crime in progress. We determined that all DVRs would be able to do the same.

But after reviewing all the DVR information from the trade show, I noticed that a few DVR manufacturers offer CD or DVD read/write drives as standard—or event optional—equipment. Why only a few? My guess is that every company wants to be priced competitively.

I completely understand this, although I am not in the corporate business. But keeping in mind real-life scenarios, the security industry must raise the bar on existing DVRs to include a writable/readable media drive, or include an advisory statement on the sales contract for potential customers. The type of media files that get exported must also be addressed.

Waiting to Get Evidence Can Outlast Length of Case

As digital video recording becomes the norm rather than the exception, the industry must come to realize that paradigm shifts such as these are being adopted slowly by the end user and the public sector. Local law enforcement agencies must ramp-up their collective abilities to deal with these new methods of storing video.

As for that attempted homicide case in Oxnard, well, police officials are still wrestling with the issue of getting a useable copy of the event. The proprietary player brought to us by the manufacturer’s representative was a corrupted version, so the department still does not have access to a “clean” copy of what was stored in the DVR.

As a result, investigators are poised to seize the DVR once again and hold it for evidence until the case concludes.

How long could that be? If the suspects are arrested quickly and plead guilty at arraignment, it could be as little as a couple of weeks. But if the suspects are not known or if the case goes to appeal, the end user might as well go buy another DVR, because by the time they get the one back from the police’s evidence room, it will be as antiquated as the VHS recorders today.

Tom Chronister is a police commander with the Oxnard (Calif.) Police Department. He is also a Certified Protection Professional (CPP) with the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS), a certified alarm system technician, and writes about the effects and relationship between the security industry and the law enforcement community. To contact Chronister, E-mail him at tomchronister@oxnardpd.com.

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