New York State Police troops put out press releases every day, but the one covering most of central New York stands out for its frequent publication of retail store security photos.
Through the first nine months of 2019, New York State Police Troop D issued 31 press releases with security camera photos of people who are suspected of crimes — mostly misdemeanor-level larcenies. Fourteen of those releases were about larcenies that occurred at a single retailer: the Walmart in Watertown.
Troop D, which has jurisdiction over seven counties that include Onondaga and Oswego, overwhelmingly uses the most security photos in its investigative process, a review by The Citizen found. Among the other 10 troops that cover the rest of the state, none used security photo press releases more than 11 times.
Security camera photos differ from mug shots, which are taken only after someone is charged with a crime, with the arrest being a matter of public record. However, state police stopped releasing mugshots in April due to a provision in the 2019-2020 state budget that banned the release of booking photos unless there was a legitimate law enforcement purpose.
Jack Keller, Troop D public information officer, said there are no specific guidelines that his troop follows to determine whether a security photo should be used in a press release. He said his troop has been “very successful” with identifying the people depicted in such photos after the releases are shared with the public.
Keller also credited social media with helping troopers to identify suspects, but the state police Facebook page only has two posts with security photos of larceny suspects — neither of which are in Troop D's jurisdiction.
“The idea here is to get information for identification purposes only,” he said. The photos are usually obtained by a trooper after the trooper first responds to a report of a crime, Keller said.
Sometimes the person identified in the photo is found to not actually be involved in any alleged crime, Keller said, and police will then issue an updated press release. Keller also said an updated press release would be issued when suspects are identified so that people don't continue to call in.
In a search of Troop D releases going back to January, only one press release has publicly cleared someone of a crime. One other press release has been updated identifying a suspect and announcing their conviction of a crime.
Another public information officer for a different state police troop — Kerra Burns of Troop G — said there are no policies of any kind that are specific to individual troops. All troops adhere to the overarching Division of State Police policies.
However, she said the choice to publish security camera photos in press releases was a matter of a public information officer’s “preferred method of getting information out.” For comparison, Burns’ troop did not include any such photos in their press releases during the last nine months.
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Troop G, which is based in Latham and covers 10 counties in a jurisdiction east of Troop D, tends to distribute information on suspects via a local news segment called “Perp Patrol” on WRGB in Albany. But the pictures on “Perp Patrol” tend to be mugshots.
Troop D publishes more photos of suspected larcenies from the Walmart in Watertown because that location provides the photos to investigators more frequently than other locations, Keller explained.
Management of the Watertown Walmart, where 14 of the security photos made public by state police were taken, deferred all questions to its corporate office, which did not return The Citizen’s requests for comment.
Other police agencies approach the use of security camera footage differently.
Roger Anthony, deputy chief for the Auburn Police Department, noted that the department released a security photo of Generation Bank robbery suspect Dustin W. Hall in June.
"I wouldn’t say we do it on minor, low-level offenses like petit larcenies and so on. I think we more or less use it for more significant investigations. Not to say that we never would," he said.
With lower offenses that tend to happen at retailers, Anthony said the department usually identifies suspects through internal emails with neighboring law enforcement agencies.
"I’m going to say more often than not, you don’t see those come out media-wise because we’re able to identify the person in the video before we get to that point," Roger said.
David Elkovitch, a defense attorney practicing in Cayuga County, said the practice of publishing photos of people from security footage is fine if it works for law enforcement as an investigative tool.
But, he said, if no charges were brought against the pictured person, “It ought to be public somewhere. Probably the same way that they published it.” He said it should be publicized if it was the wrong person, as well.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong in asking the public for help, but just make sure you investigate it properly. And if you got the wrong person, admit that you’re wrong,” Elkovitch said.