Police in this South Jersey town want to enlist homeowners' cameras to fight crime

A home security camera of the kind that Winslow Township Police hope will help them solve crimes faster.

Police in Winslow Township were searching for a suspect who held a hunter’s knife to the neck of a 78-year-old woman, grabbed her purse, and fled on foot. Though the crime last month occurred around 3 p.m., in a residential neighborhood of this Camden County town, police had no real leads for the first six days.

Then came video from a homeowner’s surveillance system. The camera had captured the entire mugging, and within 12 hours, there was an arrest.

The delay in obtaining that video could have been eliminated, Police Capt. Richard Ostermueller said, if a registry had existed to show which locations are covered by surveillance systems installed by homeowners and businesses.

Such a registry “would give us phone numbers and emails, so that we can reach people more quickly when a crime occurs, rather than trying to track them down by knocking on doors,” Ostermueller said.

Winslow launched its Electronic Eye registry program last week. Registering is voluntary.

Township officials had discussed such a program for months, but it was the mugging of the elderly woman that prompted action, Ostermueller said.

Other towns across the state, and in Kansas, Nevada and South Carolina, have adopted similar programs in recent years.

“We’re not looking to be Big Brother. We just want a database so that we can see where all the cameras are when there’s a crime,” Ostermueller said. “We live in a day and age where, if you think you’re not being recorded in some way, shape, or form when you’re just walking down a street, well, there’s always a camera somewhere.”

The database would be confidential and accessible only to law enforcement. It also would provide police with a map indicating where these cameras are so that officers can gather evidence faster.

Another advantage, Ostermueller said, is the registry would note how long each home surveillance system retains the images, so that police can view them during an investigation before they are erased.

The police, he said, are not seeking remote access to the footage or to tap into the cameras.

Winslow has 72 police officers, and the array of cameras installed at private buildings throughout the 58-square-mile township can help the police keep the community of 39,000 safe, Ostermueller said.  He couldn’t estimate how many private surveillance cameras may be out there, but he said the systems have become cheaper and more accessible to the public in recent years.

The database is being created by the department in-house, he said.

Lindenwold police created a similar registry, under its Citizens Electronic Eye program, three years ago.  It “maps out the locations of the cameras, so officers can find possible evidence faster,” a police press release said.

In Winslow, Michael Castrataro was the first homeowner to sign up for the registry, last week. “I think police should have access if something is going on,” he said.

Castrataro, 59, an electrical contractor, described himself as “security conscious,” and said that he can remotely tap into the his cameras from his phone to make sure his home is safe. He has four monitoring cameras installed on his property.

“One day, several people parked in front of my house, knocked on my door, and left, without leaving a note or business card.  I just want to know what’s going on around my house,” he said.

If police needed to see the footage while investigating a crime, Castrataro said, he would gladly provide it. “The more eyes out there for the public to use, the better,” he said.