Video cameras play pivotal role in campus investigations

With more than 500 high-definition security cameras positioned around campus, Elon University police have been able to solve crimes and effectively respond to safety issues.

The two men traveled to campus from Durham last year and walked their way into several university facilities, eventually stealing cash and credit cards from an unattended purse.

When Elon University Police were notified of the theft, they turned to surveillance footage from outside the building where the crime took place. Both men could clearly be seen headed inside. Cameras elsewhere on campus also showed them getting into a vehicle that would be helpful in making a positive identification.

Campus police contacted Durham police for assistance, and both men would eventually be charged with theft of credit cards, identity theft and larceny.

Over the past few years, Elon University has installed nearly 550 high-definition cameras on roads and walkways, in parking lots and inside buildings across campus, providing law enforcement with new “tools in the toolbelt” to deter people determined to cause problems for the community. Each camera video feed rotates through a large multi-screen display in the dispatch room for Campus Safety & Police on North Williamson Avenue.

No crimes have been spotted in real time. It would not be feasible to hire staff to watch the hundreds of camera feeds around the clock. Footage, however, is stored for a period of time on internal servers before being deleted, and that cycling video timeline has led to big breaks in recent cases, including a would-be burglar who was arrested last spring following an attempted break-in in the Danieley Neighborhood.

The most recent addition to Elon University’s camera inventory followed vandalism in mid-September inside the meditation garden next to the Numen Lumen Pavilion. Someone pushed the Kugel ball off a fountain in the garden, which, until then, lacked surveillance.

Access to the video footage is only available to Elon Campus Police officers, who may also share footage with other law enforcement agencies when requested to solve a criminal case. There are strict protocols in place to ensure privacy of people on campus, and the footage is only reviewed in response to specific incidents or investigations.

Fourteen of the cameras are high-definition license plate readers with the capability of running tag numbers through state systems in real time. The university does not currently use that real-time feature, though it’s possible to do so should high-profile dignitaries visit campus and their security details request it be activated. The license plate cameras are capable of identifying tag numbers of cars traveling in the dark in excess of 50 miles per hour.

“You’d be hard pressed to get onto campus without us getting your license plate,” said Dennis Franks, chief of Elon University Campus Safety & Police. “While the cameras don’t necessarily solve the crimes by themselves, they do give us plenty of leads.”

The security camera system is part of the extensive investments the university and Town of Elon have made in law enforcement, contributing to the town’s recent selection as one of the “50 Safest College Towns in America” by SafeWise. The safety company’s ranking is based on FBI crime statistics and other criteria.

The university’s stationary security cameras complement body cameras worn by Elon University police officers and dashboard cameras mounted in patrol vehicles. Those cameras, too, can be used in investigations and to validate or disprove allegations made against police by the public.

The attitude toward security cameras has shifted since they were first installed in Elon University campus parking lots. While older members of the community had concerns about privacy, for a generation of students immersed in selfies and social media, camera lenses simply blend into the landscape and are seen as a fact of modern life.

“When we first rolled out cameras, there was great concern that our community would feel it was always being watched,” said Christopher Waters, the university’s assistant vice president for technology and chief information officer. “Now, it’s not uncommon for students to ask, ‘why wasn’t there a camera there?’ after an incident not caught by the system.”