Mara H. Gottfried
ST. PAUL, Minn. — After a man was fatally shot in St. Paul last year, the police department tested out new video technology for the first time.
Investigators often spend hours watching surveillance footage for clues in cases, but this time, police department employees deployed a computer program that quickly searches videos for them.
If they’re looking for a blue car or a man wearing a white shirt, for example, algorithms can pinpoint when those objects appear in videos from particular locations and times.
The program can only find what’s caught on video, though.
While it located the vehicle that the shooting victim was a passenger in, the suspect vehicle was out of range because some surveillance cameras on St. Paul streets automatically rotate their views. The homicide remains under investigation.
“It didn’t pan out that time, but it saved us from watching hours and hours of video,” said Sgt. Joe Higgins, who supervises the video management unit. Higgins said he believes the technology will help solve cases going forward.
After a trial run, the St. Paul Police Department got BriefCam up and running a few weeks ago.
They plan to use it for major cases, such as homicides, serious assaults, robberies and sexual assaults.
With the prevalence of cameras — whether they’re home or business surveillance systems, or from people’s cell phones — “it’s very unusual that there isn’t some sort of video” when police are investigating a crime, Higgins said.
In the approximately 50 homicides in St. Paul since 2018, police said there have only been a handful of times in which the department didn’t collect video evidence.
While the footage helps solves crimes, police say it’s also time consuming for investigators to comb through all of it. With BriefCam, the company says hours of videos can be reviewed in minutes and sometimes in seconds.
“When our community is in the throes of a spike in violence and seeing a record number of homicides, we owe it to the people we serve to identify and use tools proven to make our investigators more effective and efficient,” said Sgt. Mike Ernster, a St. Paul police spokesman. “The sole purpose of this technology is to help us sort through the thousands of hours of video evidence associated with murders, shootings, missing-persons cases and more in a fraction of the time it typically takes.”
BriefCam was founded in 2008, based on technology developed by a Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor who is a computer vision researcher. It has been credited with helping law enforcement identify the Boston Marathon bombers and the suspect in the Oslo, Norway, terrorist attacks.
The St. Paul Police Department is spending about $40,000 over three years to use the technology.
BriefCam can use facial recognition, though the St. Paul Police Department said it isn’t using it and doesn’t have the ability to in any of its technology.
Ben Feist, American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota chief programs officer, said he has has concerns about how police could use BriefCam.
Feist said police departments should let community members provide input before implementing technology like BriefCam because it “is not as simple as police saying, ‘This is a tool that will make the job that they’re already doing easier.’ It’s fundamentally changing the way that you police people.”
While St. Paul police indicate they’ll use BriefCam for investigations into serious crime, Feist said he thinks it “could also be a tool that’s used in ongoing cases of suspicion of people and could lead to an increase of racial profiling. It just really has the potential to go way too far.”
BriefCam doesn’t search for people by skin color, race or ethnicity, and the company has no “intention of doing so in the future,” said Stephanie Weagle, the company’s chief marketing officer.
If, for example, police are told a suspect was a male wearing a hat and backpack at a particular intersection, technicians can enter the terms “hat” and “backpack” to search CCTV videos for people with those objects. Investigators would then look more closely at whether they could be the suspect in question.
“It narrows things down for us and frees up time for investigators to work on other aspects of a case,” Higgins said.