Ty Swenson
Seattle Police Officer Jonathan Kiehn (left) and Detective Scotty Bach discuss home surveillance techniques with the West Seattle Block Watch Captains' Network at the Southwest Precinct on Jan. 22.

Block Watch Captains learn the ins and outs of home surveillance

In their first meeting of the New Year, West Seattle’s Block Watch Captains Network maxed out seating at the Seattle Police Southwest Precinct to learn about options and techniques in setting up home surveillance.

Southwest Precinct Officer Jonathan Kiehn opened the presentation with pointers on where to train the eye of a camera for maximum effectiveness and Detective Scotty Bach – a surveillance specialist for SPD – went into personal experience on the subject.

Kiehn said camera surveillance is part of a larger approach to safeguarding one’s home from burglars, and a component of “CPTED.” CPTED stands for Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, and includes pointers on how to make your home less attractive to potential thieves as they prowl the neighborhoods for an easy target.

Camera location
According to Kiehn, the smartest move if you decide to purchase home surveillance cameras is to focus them on your property, and specifically on doors and other potential access points. The reason is two-fold:

Firstly, it’s all about evidence. While surveillance cameras may not stop someone from breaking into your home, capturing a burglars face on record could be the key to getting your stuff back..

Secondly, there is law to contend with. Kiehn explains, “The main idea behind the law is not to videotape someone who has an expectation of privacy. If you have your video camera up in your eves and it goes down over the frosted window pane in a person’s bathroom … it is reasonable to believe the person in that bathroom has taken a normal amount of measures to ensure their own privacy and that your video camera bypassed those measures. You would be violating the law in that case.” A “landscape” trained lens may capture unintended moments, so it’s best to focus on your own domain.

Kiehn also recommended purchasing a kit with several cameras that can see multiple entry points, placing them at a high enough altitude so people can’t rip them down (more on that later from Det. Bach), and ensuring you have either infrared cameras or enough natural light to make surveillance worthwhile in dark conditions. You can also combine motion-sensor lighting with cameras to capture the crook (all that being said, data shows the majority of burglaries in West Seattle happen in daylight hours during the workweek).

Know your system
The recording end of home surveillance varies, Kiehn said, from saving to a home computer, sending data to an internet-accessed data cloud, recording to a self-contained storage card in the camera, or recording to a dedicated hard drive.

Regardless of your system’s approach to data collection, he said it is important to understand the “write-over” time, e.g., how long the system will record before it stops, and begins recording over old footage with the new. In other cases, the camera may just stop recording if storage is full. If you get back from vacation and realize someone has ransacked the house, it’s best to get that recorded data ASAP to ensure it isn't recorded over by the time police ask for it.

Speaking of, Kiehn also said it is critically important to know how to record data from your surveillance system to a portable unit (DVD, flashdrive, etc.) in a timely manner. He recommended practicing ahead of time just in case the unfortunate strikes.

“If we can get video to send out to officers (quickly) … it makes a big difference,” he said. In that case, officers might have a face – possibly even an identity if the suspect is known to police – to work with. Otherwise, it can take several days for someone from SPD’s Criminal Intelligence Unit to come to your home and figure out how to recover the data … and by that time the trail may have ran cold.

Speaking as a citizen more than a detective
One of those officers who come out to people’s homes to recover surveillance footage is Det. Scotty Bach, a West Seattle resident. Bach said he is the guy who sets up surveillance for police sting operations, so it only makes sense that he has a system at his own home. The name may also ring a bell as one of the officers who received a Medal of Courage for spotting Ian Stawicki (the Café Racer killer) in West Seattle, which led to the end of a rampage that took five lives. He was also the one who quickly recovered surveillance footage of the shooter from Café Racer, so that it could be distributed citywide to the force.

Approaching the subject with humility and personal experience, Bach said in his 12 years as a surveillance specialist he had never heard of someone’s surveillance cameras being stolen from their home. That was until Christmas of 2012, when it happened to him.

Bach said he installed his own system, not because he had been a recent victim, but because several neighbors had and he wanted to figure out who was working the neighborhood, prowling and stealing vehicles and breaking into homes.

Upon returning from vacation, Bach made the unfortunate discovery that one of his vehicles had been stolen. Perusing his property, he realized two of his infrared cameras had also been ripped from their mounting (in one of the funnier moment of his presentation, Bach said he realized he placed a planter directly under a camera, giving the thief a handy foot stool in reaching it … even surveillance specialists make mistakes).

Sometimes thieves are not the brightest lot, evidenced by the fact that one of the people who stole the car and cameras captured his own face on video while ripping a camera from the home. That face was recorded to a hard drive in Bach’s garage, and there is now a felony warrant out for the alleged perpetrator.

Bach said there are a wide variety of surveillance systems to choose from, varying greatly in price. From his perspective, wired systems are more reliable than wireless or Bluetooth setups in recording reliable data, and he recommended reading up on the quality of video. A recording of a crook’s face with such low quality imaging that it is indiscernible does no one any good.

While not advocating for any particular system, he mentioned MACE, Lorex, Logitech and Allied during the presentation. He also recommended looking at motion-detector cameras traditionally used for hunting. Where a hunter might set up that type in a stand of trees to spot prey, so can a homeowner to capture a property predator.

The West Seattle Block Watch Captains' Network (open to everyone, not just "official" block watchers or captains) meets on the fourth Tuesday monthly from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. at the SPD Southwest Precinct (2300 S.W. Webster St.). Southwest Precinct Captain Joseph Kessler is expected to meet with the group at next month's meeting on Feb. 25.

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