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Residential cameras looming larger in Philly crime-solving

Police say more and more people are installing cameras on houses and businesses - and helping to get criminals off the street.

Mary  Dankanis shows off her residential surveillance-camera system in her home in Philadelphia on December 22, 2014.  ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Mary Dankanis shows off her residential surveillance-camera system in her home in Philadelphia on December 22, 2014. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )Read moreDavid Maialetti

WITH A mouse click, Carlesha Freeland-Gaither's blood-curdling screams echoed off the kitchen walls in the old house in Germantown the other day, as clearly as on the chilly Sunday night when a predator snatched her off the dark sidewalk outside.

"I hate hearing it," said the man at the kitchen table with his laptop - a Germantown resident for two decades who lives steps from where the 22-year-old woman was abducted Nov. 2. On condition of anonymity, he spoke about the recording that his home surveillance system had caught.

Within 12 hours of the incident, detectives were at the house collecting the audio - and a snippet of video showing the alleged kidnapper's car, one of at least three camera feeds obtained by police. Investigators say video played a crucial role in helping to bring the young woman home safely and arrest her alleged captor.

"I don't know how much the audio helped, but [detectives] came and downloaded it," the Germantown man said. He had opted to install surveillance cameras outside his stately Victorian home four years ago when he got a new security system with which cameras were an option. "You could hear glass break. The other thing they gleaned from the audio was that she definitely did not know [her alleged abductor]."

The man - who has two surveillance cameras on his porch, one aimed at the front door and another watching the street - is among a growing number of city residents installing cameras on their homes and businesses and providing invaluable aid in solving crimes, police say.

"The help to us is immense," said Homicide Detective James Dunlap, one of the first members of the Philadelphia Police Department trained in video recovery.

"I know it's there for their protection, but it also helps protect those around them, and they don't even realize it."

'A public service'

Over more than a half-century, Mary and Bill Dankanis have watched Northern Liberties ebb and flow - from a tight-knit, working-class neighborhood to its slump into downtrodden conditions as many families fled to the suburbs, to its more recent rise as a hip, sought-after hub of development.

But neighborhood change and gentrification often bring crime - "funny stuff," as Bill Dankanis likes to call it - and, his wife said, a surplus of unsuspecting victims who may not have much experience in a city.

"When everybody was fleeing the neighborhood, we decided to stay and make it better," said Mary Dankanis, 77, on a recent night in the living room of the cozy, brick rowhouse where they have lived since 1960 and raised four children.

Bill, an electrical engineer, decided to install cameras - two out front and one monitoring the back yard - in 2007, not long after someone tried to burglarize the house while the couple vacationed at the shore.

"It was for security, because with the neighborhood switching, there was a lot of funny stuff going on," said Bill, 79. "They broke the window and tried to break through the door, so on the way back, we decided we'd better find out who's doing this crap."

The Dankanises said the police have often tapped their surveillance system - which has captured, among many incidents, a gunpoint robbery and two burglaries at a warehouse across the street - to help solve crimes.

"The police know we have them and come check the cameras constantly," Mary said.

She said the gunpoint robbery was chilling to watch on video. "It was such a shame to see that poor girl standing there," she said.

Thanks to the video, which showed that the alleged robber walked with a limp, a man was quickly identified, Mary said.

"People move in from the suburbs," she said, adding that a lot of people who have moved into the neighborhood or hang out in its many bars "aren't aware of their surroundings" and can easily fall prey to criminals.

"We do it as a public service," she said. "We've been here a long time, so we're committed."

Police say the Dankanises, like the Germantown man, are part of a growing trend of Philadelphians installing cameras on homes.

"When [the Police Department's Digital Imaging Video Response Teams] started, a significant majority of cameras were in businesses," said Detective Anthony Vega, an expert in video recovery who helps train others. "Over time we've seen that slowly change, where people are now putting them in residences as well. Right now, we're probably close to 50/50."

Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman, said the highest concentration of cameras is in and around Center City and South Philadelphia.

But they can be found in any neighborhood: This year, police have released more than 500 videos in crimes ranging from Halloween-decoration theft to shootings, throughout all six detective divisions - Northeast, Northwest, East, Central, South and Southwest.

As a result of those videos, police have made more than 100 arrests and have solved more than 200 crimes, Stanford said.

Smile, you're on camera

Police have access to about 4,000 video cameras across the city - in addition to city-owned cameras, SEPTA and Amtrak cameras and those at Philadelphia International and Northeast airports, Stanford said.

That adds up to more than 30 cameras per square mile in the city, from which police can readily obtain video - so it's pretty tough to commit a crime anywhere and flee without being caught on video at some point.

"Normally, you usually cross a camera somewhere, and we're out there trying to locate that video," Dunlap said.

Video is recovered in about 50 to 60 percent of homicide cases, he said. Based on a five-year average of 297 homicides a year in the city, detectives are obtaining video in roughly 150 to 180 homicide cases per year.

"Every year, the percentage increases," Dunlap said.

Detectives often follow the route taken by a suspect for several blocks and obtain all video they find along the route.

"If someone goes off in a direction, we'll go in that direction and try to get [video of] them running by," Dunlap said. "We've done a lot where we've gone two or three blocks before we got what we call the 'money shot' where they slow down and start walking and we get a good shot of their face."

Beyond identifying criminals, detectives say video has immense evidentiary value when cases get to court, helping to validate witnesses' and victims' statements.

"It doesn't always have to be purely for identification," Dunlap said. "It does great for us in homicides, because it corroborates testimony."

Vega said video also can help detectives figure out what to look for at crime scenes, aside from the obvious evidence.

"If we can see someone touching a certain area or spitting, we know there's fingerprint evidence or DNA available," he said. "We also use it to exonerate people who are not involved in crimes."

That's part of the reason one West Philadelphia woman said she and her husband decided to install cameras outside their home in Cedar Park last year.

"It's helpful in the community [because when people are] stopped in relation to a case, the description is as specific as possible," said the woman, who requested that the Daily News withhold her name because some violent-crime cases for which she has provided video have not been resolved.

"In a neighborhood where there are concerns about profiling, [video] lessens that."

One of their own

It was the loss of one of their own that spurred the Police Department to develop a program that trains detectives to recover video and allows police to release hundreds of videos depicting crime suspects every year.

When Officer Charles Cassidy was fatally shot in October 2007 after he interrupted a robbery at a West Oak Lane Dunkin' Donuts, every second was crucial for the scores of officers who combed the city's streets hunting for the cop-killer.

Dunlap, who worked in South Detectives and was one of the few detectives in the city who knew how to recover video, was called at home to retrieve footage of Cassidy's murder from the doughnut shop.

The video that Dunlap - along with Detective Thorsten Lucke and FBI Special Agent Bastian Freund - obtained was enhanced by the FBI to show detail and eventually helped to identify the shooter, John "Jordan" Lewis. He was locked up for the murder.

"John Lewis had tattoos on his hands, which were not described correctly by witnesses inside the Dunkin' Donuts, and subsequently when [Lewis was] stopped by police in the days following the incident, he was released because of this discrepancy with his tattoos," Dunlap said. "FBI video analysts in Quantico[, Va.] were able to enhance the video quality enough for us to get a better description of the tattoos on Lewis' hands."

Vega, among the first detectives in the city to receive video training, said that each time Lewis was stopped by officers but not identified as the shooter put them in a perilously close position to a cop-killer who later was convicted of murdering Cassidy.

"That gave him the opportunity, if he wanted to, to hurt additional police officers," said Vega, who currently works in South Detectives.

The Cassidy case convinced the Police Department that the ability of investigators to quickly recover video - especially in violent crimes - was lacking among its officers, so Philadelphia police and the FBI put their heads together and developed a training program for officers.

In 2008, Dunlap said, several Philly detectives traveled to FBI headquarters in Quantico to receive video-recovery training from the FBI's Audio-Visual Forensic Unit. Philadelphia Police, with the help of the FBI, later launched a similar program modeled after the FBI training.

The first class of about 20 detectives convened in Philadelphia for the program - called DIVRT, for Digital Imaging Video Response Teams - the next year.

Since the onset of DIVRT training - offered as two eight-hour class days once or twice a year - about 90 cops throughout the city's detective divisions and investigative units have been trained, police spokesman Stanford said. Most are detectives, but some police officers who work as investigators in special units or divisions also have been trained.

The training allows detectives to turn surveillance footage of crime suspects into YouTube videos to be posted online and distributed to the media. Coupled with SafeCam, a program through which citizens can register surveillance cameras with police, the Philadelphia Police Department has been on the cutting edge of using video to solve crime, Stanford said.

The department is so far ahead of the curve, he said, that Vega and other Philly detectives regularly travel to police departments around the country to speak about Philadelphia's program and help with training.

"This is pretty big for us," Stanford said. "We've become the model for other departments."

The detectives involved with video recovery and Stanford agreed that releasing videos to the public helps to attract an immense number of tips - and, in turn, to solve crimes.

"There's been a number of cases where the phone will start ringing immediately" once video is released, Stanford said. "Anything with the elderly or involving kids, an abduction case, etc., folks are more than willing to give you a phone call."

Many crime investigations likely would have gone cold without video, police said.

"A lot of those quality-of-life crimes, if you don't have some type of evidence, would go unsolved," Vega said, citing car break-ins and vandalism as prime examples. "Video gives us a starting point."

Dunlap added that even though he and other detectives often have to convince people in some of the city's most violent neighborhoods to provide video, citizens overwhelmingly cooperate when they realize how much the footage helps in getting criminals off the street.

"Once you explain to them the value and so forth," he said, "they always come through."