To catch a thief, homeowners turn to YouTube

Homeowners are rigging their homes with cameras and posting footage of robberies on YouTube. Even police departments are turning to social media to help nab criminals.

A black SUV pulls up. A man gets out, knocks on the door, then gets back in the car and pulls away. A few minutes later, four men crowd onto the porch, kick the door in, and ransack the home.

Homeowners Dan and Alyssa Kopp transformed themselves from victims to vigilante videographers last Sunday by posting surveillance footage of the brazen burglary of their Grant Park house on YouTube, just as they did after a similar break-in last year.

And, again, they got results: Police put out an arrest warrant for one of the men this week, and are hot on the heels of the other three. Last year, police were able to catch all the burglars with the help of the YouTube video.

From video of a break-in at actress Lindsay Lohan's Los Angeles house to arrests from a homicide-caught-on-tape, YouTube sleuthing is rising in America. In places such as Atlanta, where property crimes are rising and police budgets are tightening, police are even finding new and inexpensive ways to tap directly into home surveillance systems.

"It's like reality 'CSI' and certainly a new spin on the neighborhood watch," says Eric Baumer, a criminologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Crime-fighting with social media, he says, "gives people ... a way to be anonymous, where the fear of retaliation might be lower."

Police tap into social media

To be sure, massive investments in so-called CCTV "crime cameras" have had mixed results. Crime-ridden New Orleans is in the thick of a debate over the expense of putting hundreds of cameras around the city, few of which have helped convict anybody.

Still, dozens of police departments – including the Dallas and Los Angeles police departments – now have their own social media channels where they show videos of crime taking place at both homes and businesses. Another alternative being explored by a police captain in Atlanta is to use live feeds from home surveillance systems, transmitted across services like, to watch burglaries live after a burglar alarm is tripped. Such views could help police decide how to respond – and give residents greater peace of mind.

Amateur video clips are also "an extremely useful tool," says Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Sgt. Frank Preciado. "We encourage people to get involved, we just don't want them to intervene and put themselves at risk."

Sometimes the tables are flipped. The LAPD's Internal Affairs unit has also used citizen footage of police officers to get to the bottom of allegations of "heavy-handed" police tactics, says Sergeant Preciado.

And some criminals are also using YouTube to demonstrate burglary tactics.

YouTube vigilantism

Criminologists have even begun to study correlations between the overall decline of violent crime in the US over the last decade and the spread of cellphones and social media. While more research is needed, criminologist Mr. Baumer says, "It's interesting in the sense that [crime has gone down] while the ability of citizens to surveil and connect to police" has gone up.

"[P]eople are scared and any additional component you can bring to your life that makes you feel a little safer is so important," says Kyle Keyser, founder of Atlantans Together Against Crime (ATAC).

There are limits to YouTube vigilantism, however. Burglars may catch on and start masking their faces. Mr. Keyser and others worry that cash-strapped police departments will be tempted to forego old-fashioned detective work in favor of communal surveillance methods.

Part voyeurism and part civic action, the power of videos such the Grant Park home burglary is that they can quickly gain wide circulation – a modern version of the "most wanted" poster. The Grant Park video had been watched 31,998 times and received 473 comments by Thursday. The less dramatic Lindsay Lohan burglary video had 610,421 views.

"It has to be seen as a pure benefit from the perspective of crime fighting," says media law professor Ed Baker, at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, in Philadelphia.

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