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Technology has never been better, but grainy surveillance video can doom prosecutions –

Grainy, dark images collected by video surveillance systems are costing Crown attorneys some cases and hurting police investigations, despite the huge increase in high definition video cameras that capture crystal clear images.

female suspect

An example of grainy security camera footage from 2017. The Toronto Police Service released this image when they were looking for a suspect who had allegedly been involved in an altercation with another woman. (Toronto Police Service)

In a day and age where high-definition video is available on almost any cellphone, Crown prosecutors and police are still seeing some of their cases fall apart because of grainy video surveillance.  

Each year, thousands of hours of video evidence is collected by police across the country, from surveillance systems in bank machines and retail stores, to cameras in jail cells. But the quality of that video can be so bad it can derail cases. 

“Every day we see bad video come across our desks,” said Rick Woodburn, the president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel and a senior Crown counsel in Halifax. 

Bad video cost him convictions in a manslaughter case and an aggravated assault. 

“An aggravated assault in a jail setting. An individual was stabbed multiple times and on the old video it was grainy. It was tough to see who went in and out of the cell and those people were acquitted,” said Woodburn. 

rick woodburn crown attorney

Rick Woodburn is president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel.  (Melanie Leger/CBC)

Woodburn said video quality is something Crown attorneys across the country complain about. 

“Judges — and the cases — say that it certainly beats any eyewitness testimony. Cameras don’t lie, as they say,” said Woodburn. 

Good, clear video can help identify suspects or exonerate the wrongly accused. “Poor video leads to poorer prosecution,” said Woodburn. 

Even if a video doesn’t have the clearest picture, it can still help give police a better understanding of how or when a crime occurred. In those cases, bad video is still better than none, said Woodburn.  

The Nova Scotia RCMP see equal amounts of good and bad video, although they didn’t have a breakdown of how much surveillance tape they look at in a year, said Cpl. Chris Marshall, their public information officer.  

“If it’s really grainy and it’s dark for example, sometimes the video is really of no evidentiary value, or no really informative value to the investigation,” said Marshall. 

Prices falling for better cameras

Not everyone is seeing bad video though.

Patrick Straw, executive director of the Canadian Security Association, said it’s a rarity in his home province of Ontario. The Canadian Security Association is a not-for-profit group that acts as a national voice for the security industry.

“Really in the last few years it has not been as much of an issue because of the quality of the product that’s generally being sold. A big reason for that is that the price of good quality video has come down considerably over the last five to 10 years,” said Straw.  

hi bc archive surveillance cameras

Security cameras of all shapes and sizes can be found in businesses, government buildings, and even in private homes. (CBC)

In Ontario, he hasn’t seen any surveillance system older than seven or 10 years, although small mom-and-pop businesses and companies in rural areas often have video cameras that aren’t up to date, he said. 

Some businesses simply don’t have the money to update their systems so their video quality suffers, said Straw. 

In many cases, property managers are purposely buying surveillance systems that have lower video quality because they aren’t looking for perfectly clear pictures that can be used in court, said Roger Miller, president of Northeastern Protection Service.

security camera image

Not all security camera footage is bad. This clear image was taken in 2018 and used in a Toronto Police Service investigation. (Toronto Police Service)

“They might need to see if somebody fell down or they might need to see what time a courier dropped a parcel off at the back door of their property. Something that they don’t need evidence-quality video for, but they do need to know the time and date of an event that happened,” said Miller. 

This kind of system helps businesses manage their property without costing them too much money.

Businesses sometimes learn too late

“They’re a business, their sole intent for the most part is to make money. Having a better surveillance system doesn’t necessarily make them money; neither does helping the police in an investigation,” said Miller. “Helping the police or prosecution in an investigation takes time and energy from the business.”

If a large organization were to upgrade to a high-quality system, it could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Miller. 

Many companies are now putting up the money to improve their security, said Straw. That usually happens after they’ve had an incident that makes them wish they had better recording equipment. 

Woodburn said after the stabbing in the jail, the correctional service spent millions of dollars to improve the quality of the video.

“Just recently there were convictions of 13 people in a jail-style beating and obstruction of guards and that was mainly due to the good video, high-quality video,” he said.