Mobile police are asking residents to give them remote access to their home security systems so those camera feeds can be added to thousands of others the department can already see throughout the city.
The Mobile Police Department’s (MPD) Cyber Division recently made a public push encouraging citizens with home security systems and doorbell cameras to join Project Shield — a voluntary program that the MPD has maintained with a number of businesses for years now.
Once part of Project Shield, those camera feeds can be accessed by police in real time. Kevin Levy, who commands MPD’s Cyber Division, told Lagniappe last week that Project Shield currently has access to 10,000 live video feeds at schools, businesses and private homes.
“That’s only a fraction of what we believe might be out there in the city,” he added. “I would estimate there’s probably somewhere close to 100,000 video feeds to be had.”
Levy said camera systems have become much more affordable and easier to use, and as a result, more homeowners are installing them. Project Shield has always accepted camera feeds from homeowners who were interested, though it’s primarily been marketed toward businesses.
That seems to be changing, though.
“We’ve seen an increase of homeowners with these devices,” Levy said. “We’ve also had several recent cases where doorbell cameras have provided a pivotal piece of evidence.”
One of the first cases where Mobile police found a doorbell camera extremely helpful was in the investigation of a residential burglary that occurred downtown in 2017. It was captured on the victim’s doorbell camera, which police then used to identify and arrest suspect Omar Knott, 28.
More recently, though, a homeowner’s security camera footage helped lead to the arrest of a man accused of killing a West Mobile homeowner. Seth Bowick, 24, was arrested last week for the murder of Samuel Wilson III, who was shot and killed outside of his home June 6.
As part of that investigation, police released a photograph of three persons of interest who were seen in home surveillance footage from another home in the area where Wilson was killed. That image eventually helped identify Bowick as a suspect, and he’s now facing a murder charge.
Despite the potential benefits, in an age marked by concerns about privacy, some have met the idea giving local police access to a camera on their personal property with skepticism. Levy, who is a former federal agent, said he understands those concerns but thinks they’re misplaced.
“Number one, the police department doesn’t have the time, capacity or desire to sit around and monitor anybody’s home video system,” he told Lagniappe. “That’s why when we enter into partnerships, there’s an agreement that says we’ll only access those feeds during real-time emergencies, investigation follow-ups, for training or some other kind of pre-arranged purpose that we’d we contact the homeowner about beforehand.”
With that said, Levy did note that there aren’t many specific safeguards to protect against officers abusing access to the camera network outside of the policies that already exist within the department that govern citizen privacy and other factors.
He did say most camera systems today, even smaller, less expensive ones, have logs that can let homeowners check to see who logged on to access their archived or live footage and when. In most cases that involve a camera in an area where a crime occurred, Levy said it’s usually the homeowners and business owners who are reaching out to MPD, not the other way around.
With access to cameras through Project Shield, Levy said MPD is better suited to stop crime and in some cases possibly even identify potential suspects before a crime is committed. He also said that even cameras that only record and can’t send out a livestream could help police.
That’s why the police have also invited homeowners with closed-circuit devices to register with the department so that the police will know who in the community might have footage of a potential crime, suspect or person of interest. He said that saves time instead of knocking on dozens of doors.
While Project Shield’s use of cameras grabs headlines, Levy said the heart of the program is about the relationship with the businesses and residents who are willing to work with police to keep their community safe and identify criminal suspects.
“We have some really cool tools at our police department, but without those relationships and residents wanting to help law enforcement stop crime, this doesn’t work. Whether someone likes the idea of us using cameras or not, they don’t like crime,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, and this is about us talking to residents, businesses and homeowners associations so they have someone to contact if they see something odd, but that maybe isn’t a 911-level emergency.”
Project Shield partners aren’t disclosed to the public or each other, though they are offered a free decal sticker if they want to display one on their property. Those interested in becoming a partner can register camera systems at mobilepd.org/project-shield.
More information is available at 251-208-9000 or via email at [email protected]
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