Surveillance footage becoming increasingly useful for Whidbey policework

Oak Harbor police are investigating a number of cases where surveillance footage has been pivotal.

Right now, Oak Harbor police are investigating a number of cases where surveillance footage has been absolutely pivotal, said Detective Sgt. Jenn Gravel.

During the investigation of the Ericolis Kelley shooting in 2022, surveillance video provided “really key” evidence to prosecute, Gravel said. The same is true for several recent Kia and Hyundai thefts.

“It’s actually gotten to the point where nearly any crime that we respond to, we look for cameras,” she said.

Island County doesn’t host any big commercial centers, so they don’t see daily shoplifting like the cities do, said Island County Sherriff’s Office Detective Ed Wallace. That said, in almost every case involving a damaged vehicle, vehicle prowl, stolen vehicle or other property crime, video surveillance comes into play, which is weekly.

If a house is burglarized, the first thing police officers do is check for video, Gravel said. If the home in question has no cameras, officers canvas neighboring homes and leave business cards if they see cameras and no one is home.

Walmart has helped on countless occasions with loss prevention cases and even crimes that have nothing to do with them, Gravel said. In the past, an Oak Harbor woman had reported a man following her throughout the store. The crime didn’t involve Walmart, but they were willing to assist in providing video.

“There’s three versions of every story,” Gravel said. “There’s what one person says, and the other person says, and the truth is in the middle sometimes. Video cuts that all out.”

In her 16-year career, she has yet to come across someone who was not willing to provide footage.

“Here in Oak Harbor, we are so lucky,” she said. “Everybody here is, just in general, very law-enforcement-friendly.”

But it may get trickier. Starting this week, popular front-door surveillance company Ring has discontinued its “Request for Assistance” tool through its Neighbors app, which was a convenient place for Ring users to upload footage in areas of reported crimes for police.

According to Wallace, the discontinuation of this feature will cause little to no inconvenience for law enforcement. They will still approach Ring camera owners and request footage if needed, and the sheriff’s office can even cut out the intermediary and provide their own link for citizens to upload footage.

Even with this minor setback, surveillance footage is better than it has ever been in terms of everything from prevalence to quality, to ease, Gravel said.

When she was first on patrol, police obtained VHS tapes from 7-Eleven, she said. Many businesses with surveillance cameras at the time provided footage on a “big, clunky” monitor, but there was no easy means of transferring that footage. This meant police had to record the monitor with a camera at the expense of the quality.

The sheriff’s office obtained VHS surveillance footage as recently as five years ago, Wallace said.

In the first half of this year, the Oak Harbor Police Department is implementing a voluntary camera registry program for citizens, Gravel said.

Volunteers can sign up and notify police that they have a camera and are willing to share footage if a crime is reported in their area. It creates a database for police to check first to see if there are people willing to provide footage, which may be faster than door-to-door canvasing. The registry will not be available to the public.

“Don’t get any really scary 1984 vibes from this,” she said. “It’s not Big Brother watching.”

Oftentimes, people report suspicious activity on their camera that isn’t criminal and shouldn’t necessarily go to dispatch, Gravel said. But this footage has been used to solve burglaries that happen later in the same neighborhood.

People who have recorded suspicious activity are encouraged to contact the non-emergency police line at 360-279-4600.

Oak Harbor Walmart surveillance footage showing a suspect in a theft case who was identified by his tattoos. (Photo courtesy of the Oak Harbor Police Department)