Photo by Sarah Elmquist
Laura Gerson, WSU junior majoring in geology, watches campus video surveillance in security dispatch as part of her campus job on Tuesday. About 90 percent of campus outdoors is recorded on camera, with 133 video surveillance cameras across the university.

They're keeping an eye on you


(12/30/2009)

by Sarah Squires

Private, public video surveillance covers much of Winona

Walk around any given block in downtown Winona and you’re almost certainly on camera, somewhere.

Stroll around the Winona State University campus and 90 percent of the time, you’re on tape. Stand at the top of the stairwell in the entrance to Kryszko Commons and pick your nose? Well, someone’s sitting in Sheehan Hall behind a monitor, giggling.

And aside from all the Big Brother references and the laughable little foibles, all the video surveillance cameras popping up around town have lent a hand when it comes to law enforcement in Winona. Because now, those cameras aren’t just catching shoplifters inside big retailers in town. They’re mounted to the outsides of private businesses and institutions all over town, catching little glimpses of Winona in places that never had such electronic eyes before.

“It’s uncommon to find places that don’t have video surveillance now,” said Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack. Even the trains passing through town have cameras mounted to their engines these days.

When a crime is reported that might have fallen into the view of such a camera system, police will often recruit the help of what has become a series of private surveillance videos to aid in their investigation. And those images can often lead to a break in a case through identification of a suspect — sometimes police can even pull a still frame from the video footage.

With the advances in digital technology for video footage, law enforcement officials and private security personnel have a much more efficient way of searching for and managing the images, as well. In years past, trying to find a specific time and date would often involve a lot of fast-forwarding, a lot of rewinding, and quite a bit of manpower. But now, most camera systems have ways to access a specific date and time to avoid all the searching, making using such private surveillance a faster route for investigators.

“When you can watch it, replay it, play it in slow motion, pull out still frames, it can be very useful in our investigations,” said Bostrack. “I think within the last 10 years there’s been an increase, and even more recently, within the last five,” he said of the prevalence of such video surveillance. “It’s become more the norm, and a significant number of private businesses have installed and incorporated the use of surveillance cameras.”

WSU alone has 133 cameras across its campus, said Don Walski, WSU Director of Security. The university’s video security system is constantly being upgraded, with cameras being replaced and added. In the late 1990s the cameras really began to pop up, he said, and when the East Lake Apartments were built, a full 26 cameras were added to keep an eye on them.

Walski said that the university probably only sees between five and ten incidents per year in which that footage becomes valuable to law enforcement, but that they’re helpful when they’re needed. “We’ve had a lot of cases where it’s really helped as far as students reporting things,” he said. “Whether it’s a deterrent? It could be. Unfortunately, many times, cameras are more reactive than they are proactive.”

Recently, video footage helped police investigate a report of a sexual assault on the outskirts of campus in a parking lot, a report that turned out to be false. But Bostrack said that video footage as far away as Rochester, and as close to home as the Winona County Courthouse, have helped solve area crimes.

Several years ago, when the Golfview Liquor Store in Goodview was robbed and the suspect shot, police used video footage from a retail business in Rochester to help catch a suspect. When tracing calls related to the case, police were able to pinpoint a time when a call was made from the store, and used the help of store employees to identify a suspect caught on tape.

And more recently, said Bostrack, a woman visited the Winona County Courthouse and requested to view her criminal records, then walked out of the courthouse with them. Bostrack said that video surveillance helped to convict the woman for tampering with her files.

“Sometimes, within an investigation, video can help to support or not support a timeline or series of events,” said Bostrack. His department doesn’t have cameras installed strictly for department use around town, just at the Law Enforcement Center and Courthouse, but the dramatic increase in privately owned cameras in recent years has provided new eyes for investigators. Even some downtown bars now sport the little peepers. “We’ve found them to be a great asset,” said Bostrack.

 

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