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Detectives urge shopkeepers to lower cameras, use better equipment to raise capture rate.
A woman strolled into an electronics superstore in Clackamas, hoisted a $1,000 Bose stereo system off a shelf and presented it to the clerk at the customer service desk.
She wanted to return the stereo system, she said. No, she told the clerk seconds later, she’d changed her mind. And just like that, she was out the door with the merchandise.
An investigator with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office who later examined a surveillance video of the June 15 theft grew frustrated. The images of the woman are blurry and recorded from a camera that offers a distant, bird’s-eye view. The investigator couldn’t even make out the woman’s face.
“She’s wearing a pink shirt and black pants,” said Detective Jim Strovink, who scrutinized the images with the exasperated investigator. “And . . . hmm, is it a woman? I’m not sure.”
Witnesses — who confirmed the thief was a woman and in her late 20s — picked up more details than the video did.
The case is a perfect example, Strovink said, of how many stores have poor video surveillance systems despite major advances in technology in the past decade.
Detectives say bad video hampers police efforts in Clackamas County as well as nationwide. And that hurts at a time when shoplifting and ID theft continue to account for billions of dollars in losses annually.
“We see it all the time — and it’s disheartening,” Strovink said of bad surveillance videos.
Strovink and investigators in the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office regularly plead with businesses to improve their surveillance systems.
A crook who strikes once and doesn’t get caught is bound to strike repeatedly, they say.
But some businesses, especially smaller ones, have trouble believing that beefing up their systems is worth it. Or big stores, especially national chains, say any changes must be decided at the corporate level.
Nearly useless videos
A stack of nearly useless videos of shoplifters, ID thieves, vandals and armed robbers clutter desks of investigators at the sheriff’s office.
The videos end up in the hands of Joyce Nagy, the sheriff’s employee charged with sharpening images of license plates and faces whenever possible.
Investigators circulate the best surveillance images in the community, hoping someone will recognize suspects. Or they show the images to deputies at the Clackamas County Jail, who occasionally recognize the suspects as former inmates.
On a recent afternoon, Nagy played a video clip of an armed robbery at a tavern on McLoughlin Boulevard in June. The camera is mounted near the ceiling — one of Nagy’s biggest pet peeves because it focuses on the tops of heads, not faces.
The video shows two young men with a gun speed-walking into the tavern at 1:33 a.m., near closing time. The men wear hoods or hats and are looking down.
“These guys know where the camera is,” Nagy said. “And it’s dark and it’s grainy.”
The only detail Nagy pulls from the video is that one of the robbers wears what looks to be a pair of Adidas sneakers.
That’s how Nagy connects the robbers to an armed robbery at a nearby salon. Three cameras there captured the men barging into the salon and pointing a gun at a terrified clerk, who in turn shows them the cash drawer.
“The poor thing,” Nagy said, as she could see the clerk begin to shake.
The lighting is better, Nagy pointed out, but the cameras are mounted too high. “None of them are at eye level,” Nagy said.
And none of them captured the robbers’ faces.
Two of the cameras, however, are positioned well to catch an employee stealing cash or goods — a major concern for employers nationwide. According to the 2005 National Retail Security Survey, U.S. stores lost $37.4 billion in merchandise last year — and most of that was from employee thefts, not shoplifters.
Eye-level images best
But eventually, Nagy happened across a video that’s useful. A surveillance camera at the Wal-Mart on Southeast 82nd Avenue in Clackamas records eye-level images of four people suspected of stealing laptop computers.
While the images aren’t worthy of framing on the wall, they show the suspects’ faces well. “This is great,” Nagy said. “This helps me.”
In addition to smart camera placements that capture faces rather than the tops of heads, good surveillance systems can produce crystal clear images. The best systems allow employees to zoom in on a suspicious shopper at the far end of an aisle or, with cameras mounted in the parking lot, on a license plate from hundreds of feet away.
Sportsman’s Warehouse on Southeast 82nd Avenue is one of those businesses that the sheriff’s office commends for eye-level camera placements and crisp images.
“If your tag was sticking out of the back of your T-shirt, I could probably tell you how to wash it,” said Brent Lowery, loss-prevention manager, describing the sophistication of the store’s cameras.
A surveillance system that can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars is not an expense that every business is willing to take, Lowery said, but it’s an investment that will pay for itself over time.
Good surveillance systems also save police detectives time. Bad ones can waste their time.
Two Tualatin police detectives stopped by Nagy’s office with a clip of video from a Tualatin convenience store. A camera recorded the license plate of a car parked near the entrance. The detectives believe the car is connected to a robbery at the store.
Detective Kevin Winfield told Nagy he spent eight hours fiddling with the brightness and the contrast
of the video — trying to decipher the letters and numbers on the plate that aren’t quite crisp enough to read.
Even though the crime didn’t occur in Clackamas County, he asked Nagy for a favor — her technical expertise.
“It’s right there,” Winfield said. “It drives you nuts.”
Strovink, who investigated robberies for 18 years until becoming spokesman for the sheriff’s office earlier this year, knows how Winfield feels. He can’t help but talk to businesses about awkward camera placements every time he walks through their doors.
“I walk in and look up at the cameras,” Strovink said. “And I tell them, ‘You really ought to move those cameras.’ ”
Aimee Green: 503-294-5915; firstname.lastname@example.org