By Nic Custer
Michigan State Police are making it easier for Flint business owners and residents to use their security footage to help prosecute criminals. The program, part of an interagency Secure Cities Partnership, allows trained officers to extract video evidence that can be used in court and to testify about the evidence during the trial.
The coordinator of the program, Detective Trooper Troy Bonadurer, has been working in Flint since 2000 after 19 years patrolling roadways. Originally brought in to examine cell phone video evidence, in 2013 he was tasked with gathering surveillance camera footage.
Although Bonadurer is headquartered at the state police Flint post, he works closely with the state’s three certified forensic examiners—two in Livonia and one in Lansing. A fourth examiner is being trained.
The forensic examiners, part of the Audio Visual Analysis Unit (AVAU), enhance the video and make necessary clarifications so it can be used in court or for Crime Stoppers. The forensic examiners cannot travel across the state to collect evidence, Bonadurer explained, so local officers and troopers like him are trained in the proper procedures to retrieve the video.
Last year, AVAU trained 55 detectives and troopers including one Flint police officer and another state trooper stationed in Flint. The officers are trained to perform the video extraction themselves and Bonadurer is called in if neither of the other two are available.
CCNA neighbors found help
In the last year, he has retrieved a video an average of every 1.3 days. He explained he can only collect video evidence for felony crimes such as breaking and entering. The program is not available for misdemeanors such as shoplifting or assault unless it is severe enough to be a felony.
Mike Herriman, owner of Vern’s Collision and an active member of the College Cultural Neighborhood Association’s crime watch (CCNA), heard about the program several months ago from state police.
“We were looking for answers as to why the evidence we collected was good enough to make an arrest but not to convict the suspects,” Herriman said. He and other residents presented the problem to multiple law enforcement agencies who were helpful, but only the state police offered a solution.
“This is one of the answers we found out. The evidence we were getting was good but because we had control of it at some point or another, it wasn’t admissible in court so the criminals were getting off,” he continued.
He told state police some business owners and residents decline to share their video evidence because they are afraid of having to testify in court and being retaliated against.
Daniel Tijerina, also a member of the CCNA crime watch, captured surveillance footage of individuals breaking into seven cars on his street, causing several thousand dollars in damage.
He said he didn’t realize any crimes had occurred until he saw red and blue lights in front of his home from five state police vehicles and four Flint police vehicles. He declined to share which street he lives on because the case is still in court.
Protecting chain of evidence
Flint police informed him who to contact with the state police and they arrived within 48 hours and retrieved the video within 15 minutes. He said the process was very easy and helped him appreciate how important the chain of evidence is to a successful trial. The experience, he said, proved the value of his camera system, which he later upgraded.
In most instances, investigating officers will contact Bonadurer if surveillance data might be useful. It takes him on average an hour to extract the video and document the process with photographs, and another four to six hours to back up, review and document the video.
Bonadurer then sends preliminary images or raw video to the local prosecutor and sends the video to a forensic examiner to clarify images and convert the video.
The forensic examiners have a backlog that can take up to a month to complete and each video takes them up to two days to process.
He said in Flint, because of the large number of calls, the system still has gaps where potentially useful surveillance evidence is not collected before the video is deleted or written over.
Eliminating need to testify
Bonadurer said officers don’t want camera owners to extract the video themselves because the business owner could have to testify about how they removed the evidence from their security system and what steps they took to prevent the footage from being tampered with.
He said police prefer a trained officer collect the footage directly because most people don’t know the procedures to preserve it as evidence and cases have been dismissed as a result.
Also, he explained, allowing officers to remove the video prevents owners or managers from having to be involved in the trial. The business owner may still receive a subpoena to go to court but they would just have to testify they gave the officer permission to take the video.
Bonadurer said anything that can be seen by the public is fair game for video surveillance. But cameras are not allowed to focus inside another property’s windows or to attempt to see inside the house.
He understands many businesses haven’t had good relationships with police. But, he said, he has been able to build trust in the community and after managers or business owners got to know him, they were much more open to providing video.
He tries to communicate he is not concerned about a marijuana roach in someone’s ashtray when he goes to retrieve the video from their home or business. He is there to gather evidence, not to search their property.
“Crime happens everywhere, so people in this day and age should be more willing to protect themselves and utilize the tools that are available to them to keep the neighborhood safe, keep their home safe, keep their families safe,” Tijerina said. “It’s just an extra step a lot of people may or may not think about it.”
Bonadurer said residents and business owners should call him if they are unsure whether the crime they have footage of is a felony.
He is usually out of the office responding to calls and said people should leave a message and he will get back to them within three or four days. To contact him, call 237-6941 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
EVM Managing Editor Nic Custer can be reached at email@example.com.