The neighborhood watch is going digital in the suburbs as four police departments across the metro area look to partner with homeowners in a voluntary at-home surveillance camera database.
Edina is the latest police department to implement the SafeCam program in the wake of an attempted parking lot carjacking in the heart of the city. Neighboring Richfield started SafeCam last year, while the Savage and Coon Rapids police departments — the first in the state to roll it out — are nearly four years into the program.
SafeCam adds a new layer of coding to a city's existing geographic information system (GIS). It's essentially a map of registered home security cameras and a correlating database of contact information. It enables investigators to call or e-mail homeowners when canvassing a neighborhood where a crime occurred and ask them to check their footage for potential evidence.
Since 2019, dozens of law enforcement agencies across Minnesota from Austin to Crow Wing County have partnered with Amazon's Ring video doorbell, including the Maple Grove and Brooklyn Center fire departments in the metro.
Minneapolis police contracted with Atlanta-based Fusus, which focuses on business surveillance and city-owned surveillance cameras that police can view in real time. The partnership began when the city hosted the Super Bowl in 2018.
"It started there, but it's come a long way since then," said Sahil Merchant, Fusus chief strategy officer who is based in Minneapolis.
Merchant said the cameras are connected to ShotSpotter activations and can read license plates in areas where a carjacking occurred, giving police the ability to livestream from their phones. Minneapolis still encourages residents to register their cameras, but Merchant said that doesn't give police "blanket access. ... There has to be consent from the owner."
Rather than working with a third-party company like Amazon or Fusus, cities can operate SafeCam at no additional cost. The goal is to create a network of residential home security, although small businesses also can sign up for SafeCam.
If homeowners in the SafeCam program spot anything on their footage that might aid an investigation, they can share the video with detectives via e-mail or flash drive. But they're not required to share the footage and can opt out of the program at any time.
Within days of Edina rolling out the program, nearly 130 residents registered along with four businesses.
"You need people to participate to make it successful," said Edina police Sgt. Ryan Schultz.
Edina police strategized after the attempted carjacking on Dec. 9 in the parking lot outside Lunds & Byerlys on W. 50th Street. After checking with Richfield and learning SafeCam was free and created in-house, Schultz said SafeCam launched five days after the carjacking.
"You don't have to reinvent the wheel. We're very generous with each other sharing information," said Jill Mecklenburg, Richfield police crime prevention specialist.
As crime increased last fall in the Twin Cities, Mecklenburg said she thought about ways that residents could improve their home security. While researching SafeCam, she noticed that while it was used in large metro areas like Las Vegas, Philadelphia and New Orleans, just one Minnesota police department had it — Savage.
She called Georgeann Freeman, Savage's crime prevention specialist, who told her all she needed to do was get in touch with Richfield GIS coordinator, Geizon Santana. Using existing software, they set up SafeCam within a week. Richfield now has 115 registrants with more than 250 cameras.
Santana said SafeCam should be the standard for police departments. "It's less costly and it keeps the data not on a third-party agency," he said.
Since Savage rolled out its SafeCam program in 2018, Freeman said, about 200 residents have registered and the program "has been well received by the community."
Still, some residents are skeptical, and privacy advocates fear that the increased surveillance will be used more aggressively in communities of color that already see high levels of policing.
The American Civil Liberties Union encourages cities to give residents and elected leaders a role in deciding how surveillance technology is used. About 20 cities have such laws, though none is in Minnesota.
Laws are "critical to ensuring lower-funded police forces simply do not pivot from more costly, racially biased human policing to less costly, racially biased high-tech policing," the ACLU said in response to calls to defund police following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020.
Richfield resident Peter Milton said he didn't hesitate to register his Nest front porch camera with the SafeCam program, despite the concerns of some of his neighbors over privacy. "You have some type of safety system for reason. Why not make it available for another resource and tool if need be?" he said.
But SafeCam hasn't yet come into play for an investigation in Edina or Richfield. "I wish I could share some big success story on it solving a crime," Mecklenburg said.
Schultz said that while SafeCam still is building its database, detectives will continue to do traditional door knocking while physically canvassing an area. He said he doesn't envision that changing, only that the new technology will expedite the process.
SafeCam didn't help identify the three suspects in the Lunds carjacking, he said, but video surveillance from businesses in the area did.
"It just kind of proves how important video surveillance and being able to find the video surveillance in an incident can be, and how helpful," Schultz said.