Video Surveillance In Tactical Planning

On a hillside in New England, two narcotics investigators armed with a video camcorder and a 500mm lens are watching a farmhouse on the other side of the valley. From their observation point in the tree line, they are able to get license plates and legally identifiable video of all who visit the farmhouse. The video provides raw intelligence as well as insight into how the drugs are moved and stored. While watching the video, raid planners learn critical details about which doors open out and that there are children present in the farmhouse.

A covert entry team in Europe is wiring a location for sound and video. While they work, the security officer is watching all the approaches using four tiny Wi-Fi enabled camcorders. They are capturing more than 4,000 lines of resolution (4k) and sending their signals to a handheld tablet. These camcorders, hidden inside fast food cartons near a trash barrel and in other easy to make “hides,” can pick up the slightest movement and warn the team in time to take evasive action. Once the entry is complete, the camcorders can be retrieved and used again elsewhere.

In North America, Mobile Surveillance Teams (MSTs), sometimes referred to as “Spin Teams,” are shooting video of suspects as they conduct their criminal enterprises and meet other criminals. The teams spend their entire shift in the field. At the end of the day, video of targets is emailed to case officers and intelligence analysts.

A successful tactical mission involves many intertwined elements: target identification, planning, team selection, scheduling, support manpower, transportation, supplies, operator rehearsals and, of course, intelligence. None of these can be overlooked if the mission is to be successful. But time and again planners forget to include video surveillance in their tactical plan. Perhaps that is because they are unaware of the technological advancements of the past two years.

4k mini video cameras and High Definition handheld camcorders are changing the way surveillance is shot. Gone are the grainy videos of the VHS era. (VHS, by the way, was 250 lines of resolution; 4k mini video has 16 times more resolution.) None of the equipment mentioned above is classified. Nor is it expensive. It can be delivered to your agency overnight. In the U.S. and in some Canadian Provinces, the equipment can be borrowed from a Regional Intelligence Sharing System (RISS) Agency at no cost to the LEA.

Why then doesn’t every tactical team use video? I have heard all the excuses: “It is too complicated, the camcorders are too big, the camcorders cost too much, the camcorder has too many buttons, we don’t have anyone who knows how to use the equipment. Our people already have digital SLRs.”

In my view, those excuses don’t hold water. Around the world, law enforcement agencies are adapting video surveillance and it is helping to win cases. In Korea, a police officer is using video to win convictions in an illegal gambling operation. The officer attended a class conducted by the International Tactical Training Association (ITTA) at the Korean National Police Institute. In North America, municipal and regional intelligence units are using inexpensive High Definition camcorders to record criminal activity. In both cases, a key to their success has been training, learning to operate their equipment under real-world conditions.

Another key to a successful video surveillance operation is equipment selection. Hi- Def camcorders range in price from about $400 to more than $5,000 and price generally denotes quality. The more expensive camcorders from Canon, Panasonic and Sony use interchangeable lenses, which make them perfect for long-range surveillance from fixed locations. My personal choice is the Canon C-100 camcorder because it uses widely available EOS-mount lenses.

The longer the lens, the more impor- TACTICAL SOLUTIONS 23 tant the tripod becomes. The price for high quality carbon fiber tripods can be daunting. Instead, select a metal tripod with a fluid head. For extremely long lenses consider adding sandbags to each to minimize vibration and shake.

At lower price points, today’s camcorders have some extraordinary features such as the ability to see infrared light and to stream video to other locations using Wi-Fi. Some have very long optical zooms. Most of today’s camcorders also have digital zooms, which give the operator that ability to video objects up to half a mile away. The compact size of these camcorders makes them perfect for deployment in many situations.

No matter the price, when purchasing a camcorder insist on these four features:

1) A viewfinder in addition to a flip-out view screen,

2) On-the-lens focusing,

3) An auxiliary microphone jack and

4) Removable digital media.

Look for a camcorder that has a viewfinder. Most of the current camcorders have a flip-out view screen. They are difficult to use in bright sunlight. At night, in my opinion, flip-out view screens are downright dangerous because they light up the operator’s face endangering their safety and the surveillance operation. A viewfinder is easier to use and can be adjusted to match the operator’s individual eyesight. Using a viewfinder conserves battery power.

Many of the best-known brands of consumer camcorders use what is called “Touch Screen” focusing on the flip-out view screen. Others use a small joystick on the flip- out view screen. Both of these methods are nearly impossible to use while wearing cold weather gloves. Further, they can only be used when the flipout screen is open. On-the-lens focusing is easier to use under all conditions.

An auxiliary microphone jack allows the operator to use a “Dead Short” knockout plug, which blocks the camcorder’s on-board microphone. Without a microphone, the camcorder records silent video. Why silent video? Let’s say you are shooting surveillance video and your cell phone rings. No matter whether the conversation is professional or personal, you do not need to share that conversation with a jury or the court. Frequently, surveillance teams have sat in the same place for hours and may make comments that should not be shared with anyone. In my opinion, a camcorder that lacks an auxiliary microphone jack may not be suitable for use in law enforcement. Removable digital media refers to either a Compact Flash Card or an SD card, which are used to record the video files. The alternative is an internal hard drive. Removable media have several advantages. Each operator can be assigned their own media and thus are responsible for maintaining chain of custody and duplication. The original media can be kept with the case file and used to prove that duplicates of the video were not altered. Some camcorders have two digital media drives that allow you to continue recording on the “B” drive when the media in the “A” drive has filled to capacity. In selecting digital media, make certain it is suitable for recording video. At the moment, most manufacturers recommend “Class 10” SD cards for their camcorders.

Because camcorder models tend to change each year, it is impossible to recommend any specific unit because it may not be available when you need to make a purchase. A knowledgeable video store is a good source for camcorder recommendations. If, when you mention the four required features, the clerk does not understand what you are looking for, find another store. I am reluctant to recommend shopping online because while the prices may be better, some vendors sell “Gray Market” goods intended for sale in another country. “Gray Market” camcorders may not have a warranty for your country. If all else fails, contact the camcorder manufacturer’s office in your country. Almost all manufacturers will have a tech rep who deals with law enforcement and may be able to make a recommendation.

No matter which kind of mission your team undertakes, video is simply the best way to quickly and safely gather intelligence.

About the Author

Wadi Sawabini has 23 years experience teaching law enforcement professionals how to shoot evidence-grade video. A former Reserve Deputy with the Erie County, New York Sheriff’s Office, Sawabini has taught for the ATF, FBI, the U.S. Border Patrol and dozens of other federal agencies. He has also taught members of the Korean National Police, the Bermuda Police Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Criminal Intelligence Service of Ontario and the Ontario Regional Police

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