Quality of photos from some bank cameras makes ID difficult
Champaign-Urbana has seen eight bank robberies since March.
Many of them have had at least one thing in common. The security photos of the incidents are blurry, grainy, dark or out of focus.
For police, the lack of clear images from the crime makes catching the bank robbers that much more difficult.
"When we get a better picture, it makes it easier to investigate the crime," said Champaign police crime scene investigator Sgt. Bruce Ramseyer.
"A good resolution picture would help us in identifying who the subjects were," said Brad Ware, a spokesman for the FBI.
"Many people have smart phones that have pretty good cameras and video cameras on them," said Champaign police Lt. Robert Rea, who investigates many of the city's bank robberies. "Then you walk into a major business or bank, and they are still using stuff that is old."
Rea said the First Midwest Bank in Champaign, which was robbed on July 6, was still using a black-and-white camera.
"Some of the banks could improve their equipment," Rea said.
Meanwhile, when the Illini Arcade in Champaign was robbed on May 6, the photo of the suspect was so clear that Champaign County Crimestoppers received several calls within the first few hours after the photo was released to the public.
Police then arrested Nick Thurman, 37, at a home in Fisher.
"Some places have great surveillance video, especially the convenience stores like Circle K and the department stores," Rea said. "We've got an electronics tech unit at the police department that is pretty well-versed in technology and can provide information and insight to businesses."
Steve Herndon, vice president of compliance and security for First Financial Bank, said there are a variety of reasons why surveillance photos may be subpar.
"The placement of the cameras themselves may not lend themselves to producing the best picture," Herndon said.
Don Schlorff, executive vice president at Busey Bank, noted four crucial factors behind producing good photos from security cameras in general, not specifically at Busey Bank.
"Any organization must determine the most appropriate level of investment in security systems, such as cameras, for their company," Schlorff said. "At Busey, the safety of our customers and associates is of utmost importance, therefore, we continue to maintain the highest level of security at all of our facilities."
Location. Schlorff said he recommends banks invest in multiple security cameras.
"You want to have a couple of options available to hopefully catch different views of the person," he said. "In banks in which I have worked, we have cameras to cover walking up to the teller, the entrance doors, the ATM and the drive-up windows."
Distance between camera, subject. Schlorff said it is often easier for convenience stores to produce good security photos because many of them don't have as much square footage to cover as a typical bank.
"A small convenience store can usually give you a pretty good picture because you don't have a lot of room," he said.
Visibility. "You don't necessarily want the camera to be seen," Schlorff said.
Herndon said some banks have begun using what he calls "covert cameras" that are hidden in locations that don't appear to contain cameras.
Lighting. "Lighting can affect the image you receive based on the time of day and the angle of the sun," Schlorff said.
"When you put a camera in the ceiling and try to take a picture of someone, you don't get a good photo of the person looking down on them," Rea said. "The world doesn't look at people from that angle.
"We tell people it can be good to improve their camera angles and locations by using eye-level cameras."
Schlorff said sometimes a security camera can be inadvertently knocked out of focus by the cleaning crew.
"You want to look at all your cameras on a weekly basis," Schlorff said.
"The staff at a bank should check all the security cameras as part of its opening procedures," Herndon said. "The staff should take a look at the images to make sure they are in focus and to make sure the cameras are pointed in the right directions."
Dave Kuhl of First Financial Bank says it is important for banks to utilize the latest camera technology.
"The banks use different equipment," Kuhl said. "Some are still using tapes to record images, and some have converted to digital images. Some of the banks are still using equipment that is three to five years old."
Herndon agrees that equipment quality is an important factor.
"Most banks have gone with a digital recorder instead of the old tape system," Herndon said. "Tapes often give you grainy pictures, and the quality goes down."
Herndon is convinced digital technology is best for security camera systems.
"Digital technology has taken security cameras to another level," he said.
Schlorff said banks need to decide how much money to invest in surveillance cameras.
"There's got to be a business model to follow," he said. "You don't have an open checkbook to buy security equipment."
Dustin LaFond, the owner of Bloomington-based Impressive Home Security, which provides security cameras and equipment for businesses in central Illinois, recommends businesses spend at least $2,000 on a four-camera system. Herndon said some banks spend as much as $12,000 on a quality camera system.
LaFond said it is important for businesses to invest in equipment that provides crisp, clear images.
"If a camera can't differentiate the details of a person or vehicle, what's the point?" he said. "If you invest in quality camera equipment, you not only have piece of mind, but you have good footage for the police to use if needed."
LaFond said the better cameras feed images to a 500 gigabyte DVR, and he recommends using cameras that feature good resolution and infrared capability to record activities at night.
"We're seeing some businesses investing in equipment that gives the owner or manager remote access to the camera footage," LaFond said. "They can be at home or on the road and see what is happening on their phone or iPad or computer with a live look-in."
Camera maintenance is another factor behind producing good photos, according to Herndon.
"It is important to check the cameras on a periodic basis to see if they are in focus," Schlorff said. "This is something that people need to be paying attention to. If we have a situation like a robbery, we want a good picture if we can get it."
Ware said the FBI's Forensic Audio, Video & Image Analysis Unit based in Quantico, Va., has been working with law enforcement agencies, professional forensic organizations, video equipment manufacturers and the public in an effort to improve the quality of security video.
He said the goal has been "to achieve better quality video so that there is a higher probability of identifying individuals/items within the video."
This story appeared in print on July 15.