Caught on Video

10 minute read

With video surveillance cameras and by working with local police departments, apartment communities can reduce onsite crime.

Deterring neighborhood crime can be more than having a police car park nearby. What if that police car had access to a live video feed from apartment community security cameras pointed at two dozen high-traffic areas?

Such a solution is helping owners Matthew Haines, CAPS, CAM, IROP, CAMT, The Tangent Group, and Steven Gould, CAPS, IROP, Elmstone Group Property Management, to detect unsavory behavior and discourage crime and vandalism at their class C properties in Irving, Texas. By providing video evidence, these operators have been able to identify and arrest trespassers who are up to no good.

Gould recently dealt with this problem first-hand when young kids entered the laundry room at one of his properties – just after the laundry room had undergone costly renovations.

“The kids were bored, with nothing better to do,” Gould says. “They came in and started climbing all over the washing machines, damaging the top-loading lids, the control knobs and the coin slots. They would set off the fire extinguishers spraying the yellow powder everywhere. They also left graffiti on the walls.

“Not only did we have to pay for all of the necessary repairs, it also cost the property potential ancillary income while it was out of service and it was an inconvenience for the residents.”

Having Police On-Call

Haines invested approximately $50,000 in his security camera system for his 96-unit community, Watertower Villas. He says the investment has easily paid for itself.

He says his cameras have revealed illegal dumping by non-residents in the waste areas; breaking and entering attempts made in the hallways; persons roaming the property checking for unlocked doors; attempted car theft; residents speaking inappropriately to staff members inside the leasing office; damage to laundry equipment and causing other malfunctions. All of which result in either lease violation fines to cover incurred costs or prosecution for trespassing – both which reduce or eliminate the unwanted behavior at the property, Haines says.

Haines granted access to the feed to local police and the Department of Homeland Security. His cameras focus on his parking lot, records the license plates of all cars coming in and out of the property as well as most that utilize the street that it is located on, apartment unit hallways, the laundry room, common areas, the leasing office and the trash collection area, among other places. Police can view all 32 camera angles from their computers while sitting in their cars a few blocks away.

“If you view a map of our neighborhood that indicates police activity, my property is the ‘donut hole’ because there is so little police activity,” Haines says. “But every area surrounding us is lit up.”

Video security companies offer to monitor their customers’ cameras, including on a 24-7 basis. Round-the-clock monitoring can bring a hefty price both in dollars and potentially in staff time. Haines instead has trained his staff to use the equipment and inform residents of their use.

Residents are told at move-in that cameras are installed to record activity. He says he’s not received a complaint from residents about the system. “Actually, they tell me they appreciate knowing that everything is being recorded.”

To avoid liability, Haines says it’s very important for onsite staff members not to suggest to the residents that the cameras are there for their safety and security.

“If we find that crime or vandalism might have occurred, I ask my staff to review video recordings,” Haines says. “I also have access to the video feed and can view it in real-time on my laptop. It’s not difficult to determine if something suspicious is happening. If we see a resident dumping a mattress in a container where that is not allowed, we can identify who it is and fine them.

“If we see people walking the halls, putting their ears to each of the doors, we suspect something is up. We contact the police. They come out and question them and determine what is going on and how to proceed. We had a case of this happening, shared the video with police and they recognized the two men allegedly involved as ones who were suspects in similar crimes elsewhere. They were arrested and prosecuted.”

Haines’ system stores up to 10 weeks’ worth of activity. He says that on average, he pulls video once every two or three weeks.

“With these cameras, when it comes to arresting and prosecuting violators, our community’s success rate is 100 percent,” Haines says.

Haines says granting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) access to the camera feed has twice helped DHS with monitoring gang-related behavior.

Gould says his communities work with the local police as much as possible to reduce crime both on the properties and across the city.

“By allowing police officers easy access to our properties when they need it, as well as access to our cameras then it only strengthens our relationship with them and helps to make the city a better place for all,” he says.

Time and Space

Video camera capabilities continue to improve, creating a wide range of products and service options.

“Sales reps need to set reasonable expectations for their customer,” Arvizu says. “It’s important for customers to understand what they are investing in. They might see a deal at Costco for 12 cameras for $800, and then you tell them that one very good camera costs more than that. Or that a full install could cost $12,000. You need cameras with better resolution, facial recognition, zoom, lighting, etc. You get what you pay for.

“On the other hand, you have people who are used to seeing the cameras used on TV shows like ‘CSI.’ Those allow you to determine an intruder’s eye color, for example. Well, those cameras cost a lot of money, probably more than apartment operators want to spend. Any interested customer should always get demonstrations of the cameras they are buying so they can see their capabilities.”

Haines says it’s the owners’ choice on whether to buy or lease the equipment, based on their business model. “If they plan to own or manage the property for a short amount of time, it could make sense to lease the equipment, even though it generally costs more to lease than buy. We’re not flipping our communities, so we own our equipment.”

At one time, motion sensors were more disruptive than helpful: A property could receive thousands of emails per day, one for each time something was happening when in fact it was just a cat walking past the camera, for example.

Surveillance systems are customized based on the communities’ characteristics and to meet the wishes of the client, Noel Arvizu, Account Manager, ADT Security Services, says. Customers would rather not be alerted any time there is movement but would rather receive push notifications if activity is suspicious or unlawful. Others request that they be notified with a “check-in” every day, even when everything is okay. The rise in smart analytics development during the past few years has helped to make security cameras work more efficiently and with the ability to focus on a given area. Triggers can be set, and alerts sent, when, for example, there is movement within 15 feet of an object at a given time, such as in an entryway that is off limits.

Virtual (electronic) fencing can be installed and notifications sent if the fence is breached in a certain area at a certain time.

The system’s storage capacity also is critical. Arvizu recalls a customer who set their recorder to run for two hours per cycle. After a problem occurred at their property, they knew when and where and that their camera was pointed at that location—but with the two-hour cycle, they recorded over it so the video evidence they needed no longer existed.

Office Wiseman at 3rd Eye Surveillance, which installed the systems for Haines and Gould, monitors activity for some of his clients.

“It’s simple to recognize that someone is trying to break into a car or that instead, they have locked their keys in their own car,” he says. “Believe it or not, many criminals are stupid. They will literally look at the camera and still commit the crime. Criminals don’t care about cameras because they don’t think anyone is proactively watching as opposed to reactively watching. That’s what sets us apart.”

“Imagine that you are a criminal trying to commit a crime and, in your judgment, you determine that you are out of view of any cameras, so you think the coast is clear. Then, suddenly, you hear one of our agents speaking through the attached speaker, ‘You are in an unauthorized area and the police have been called.’ I assure you that will cause them to quickly leave the scene. We have witnessed it hundreds of times. That is what our clients pay for.”

Police Reports & Video Review Requests

Mark Malone of Lurin Capital, which operates a portfolio throughout the Southeast United States, relies on the recorded video feed at his properties when he’s made aware of potential unlawful activity through police reports written by his local police department.

“Having cameras in place definitely helps to cut crime,” says Malone, who uses ADT. “Just having cameras visible is a big deterrent. But if something does happen, we have recordings going back 45 days. This can be used as evidence. We don’t need to have the video feed monitored continuously. This is not something our staff has to do.”

Watchtower Security provides a managed video surveillance service. Upon a request to review footage, it files a report including a time-lapsed recording to the property. For example:

“We have completed our review of the requested footage regarding a vehicle struck at your apartment complex on 2/26/19. At 11:11 p.m. we observe a female enter the view of camera 9 from the direction of building G. She enters a Chevrolet Equinox. The Equinox backs out of its parking space and strikes a dark-colored sedan. The Equinox travels to the view of camera 4. At 11:13 p.m. the Equinox exits the property. Its Illinois license plate reads AJ36691. We have provided a video of the events we were able to observe, as well as still images, for your records. You may view these files on your portal.”

DVD versions of the video also are made available and any raw files used in the creation of a compilation video are retained for one year.

Anthony Wonderly, Principal, Olympus Property, uses video surveillance at about half of his 50 communities. He had used courtesy patrol officers to sporadically monitor his properties during the off-hours but has since found the camera system to reduce petty crime and save time for his onsite staff. He has as many as 40 cameras installed per property, located in more than just the common areas.

“We don’t have very many instances where we’d want to check the video, but if we do, our service partner handles that for us,” Wonderly says. “We give them [Watchtower Security] a time frame of when and where an incident took place and they review the film and put together a video account of what happened. We review that and address it. If it’s a more serious violation or crime, we submit the video to the police department.”

Gould says cameras he’s used before were not effective because of where and how they were installed.

“So much depends on the quality of the installation and how well concealed the cables are,” Gould says. “Exposed cables will get cut or pulled out sooner or later.”

Part of Watchtower Security’s strategy for camera placement is based on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). It’s defined as a multi-disciplinary approach for reducing crime through urban and environmental design and the management and use of built environments.

“CPTED strategies aim to reduce victimization, deter offender decisions that precede criminal acts, and build a sense of community among inhabitants so they can gain territorial control of areas and reduce opportunities for crime and fear of crime,” says Clayton Burnett, CAS, Director of Innovation & New Technology, Watchtower Security. “CPTED is pronounced ‘sep-ted’ and it is known around the world as Designing Out Crime, defensible space and other similar terms.”

Wiseman says that today more and more properties are adding security in their parking garages.

“That brings another set of challenges for the installation,” he says. “You have to deal with so much concrete. You must have installers who are able to bend the conduit and who can run the wire. This is time-consuming, but it has to be done correctly.”

Some systems are available via a cloud-based system. If doing so, the community must make sure it is hooked up with a network that can support the cloud. Keep in mind, some neighborhoods simply do not have signals that are strong enough.