Mailbox thefts, car break-ins and footage of suspicious strangers are flooding community Facebook pages. But is knowledge power or ignorance bliss? Kim Knight talks to police, community volunteers and legal experts about the rise in home-based security cameras.
The woman on the poster rode a purple E-scooter. "Wanted," said the bold type. "For stealing my mail and stealing my heart."
Frequent followers of Auckland's community Facebook pages might have recognised the image. Certainly, they would have been familiar with the concept of mail theft. Less expected? The tongue-in-cheek noir romance tale that followed.
"Sometimes I wake up at night to the faint sound of an E-scooter powering past my house and the sound of mailbox lids being elegantly slammed shut. Till this day, I leave extra mail out just hoping that she will return . . . "
In January, an alleged mail thief targeting Auckland's upmarket letterboxes spawned a love letter of her own. The fanfiction was probably libellous, but it also made a change from the usual Facebook community page advice to plant a dummy parcel containing dog poo.
Computer screens are the new net curtains. Every other house has a security camera (or four) and suspicious behaviour is being uploaded to social media long before it is reported to police. Big Brother is watching you - and so is that nice lady with the ginger cat who lives two doors down.
The proliferation of home surveillance imagery online makes for scary viewing. On community forums, reports of alleged mailbox and parcel thieves, prowlers and vehicle break-ins feel as common as posts about lost cats and free stuff on the berms. Is perception reality? Are our suburbs really becoming less safe?
Last year, Auckland police recorded 82,568 "victimisations" - about 12,500 more than in 2020 (although only 3230 more than in 2019). Burglaries and thefts represent the bulk of the city's crime statistics. Last year they topped 73,000, up from about 70,000 two years ago. The latter equates to an increase of just 4 per cent, but go to any community Facebook page and feel the fear:
March 15: "Bloody Roskill is turning into a cesspit of scumbags and this is from someone that's lived here for over half a century."
March 16: "Is it just Mt Eden or is this growing crime Auckland/Nationwide?"
March 29: "Westmere has been subject to a lot of crime since Covid. Always used to be a good safe neighbourhood."
Keep scrolling and, eventually, you'll find closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage or photographs.
Jason Bell, technology and appliances lead at Noel Leeming, says home security systems are a growth area for the company, with brands like Arlo and Eufy dominating. Indoor, outdoor and doorbell cameras are all commonly purchased, with prices starting at $69 for a single WiFi camera and $199 for a doorbell model.
"It's more common for houses to have cameras than to not have cameras nowadays," Summit Security's Cam Anderson confirms. "The prices have come down and the technology has improved."
Anderson has been in the business for almost a decade. He works mostly with commercial clients, but says lower prices and improved technology have led to big increases in self-installed systems in private homes.
"Probably in the last five years, it has become a lot easier for homeowners to DIY. There's a big push for wireless systems over traditional cabled systems. They run off batteries and link to phones."
Who uses CCTV?
"Everyone," says Anderson. "It's not just for security purposes. People use it for worker time and attendance checks or if they're food suppliers, for example, they might use it to check for defects and returns.
"I think people are just more open to the idea of cameras. People just accept that they're being watched. They know there are cameras everywhere and they know people will be checking those cameras."
Earlier this year, Herald journalist Kurt Bayer reported on the rise and rise of CCTV.
He estimated at least 400,000 cameras were in use around the country, including about 10,000 operated by local government authorities (2035 in Auckland alone) and thousands more set up by transport agencies, airports, Government departments, petrol stations, supermarkets, banks and major fast food chains. Home-based systems - with single cameras priced as low as $69 - are an unknown quantity. A venture called "Community Cam", led by web developer and volunteer extraordinaire Michelle Hohepa, aims to change that.
Hohepa says about five years ago, in a neighbourhood support role for Auckland's Māngere Bridge community, she worked closely with police who would frequently call her to see if she knew anybody with cameras in areas where crime had been committed.
"I'd be like 'oh, contact this person, they've got good coverage on that street'. They used to ring me all the time. I was literally awake with my baby at 1am when I thought 'I'm just going to build them a website so they don't have to keep bugging me'. And that's literally what happened."
Got a home security camera? Register with www.communitycam.co.nz and keep your suburb safer. Hohepa says, historically, police would have to go door to door looking for homeowners whose security systems might have caught vision of offenders or even missing persons. Officers would then physically download any footage on a USB and take it back to their station.
"It was so archaic and wasting so much time. I built them a function so that if people have a police case number, they can just upload their footage . . . in something like a missing person case, speed is so essential. If police can just quickly phone someone, and then view any footage that can be uploaded without having to drive around and collect it, that's a massive time saver and that could be critical."
Police are currently trialling a push on the use of the system in Counties Manukau and Whangarei. Hohepa says about 550 camera owners are signed up, but "many more" are needed.
"It's probably even more important for more rural towns, where the police teams are smaller. Business associations and councils should be getting on board."
Hohepa stresses that a sign-up does not give police automatic access to cameras.
"For some reason, when people hear 'police and cameras' they think it's a live tap into their home cameras. It's definitely not that. It's just a database . . . and only police have access to any data or footage that people choose to upload."
It's crucial, she says, that all crime is reported to police - either via 111 as it's happening, or, if it's historic, via the 105 line.
"Call 111, rather than just adding it to a local community page. If you see someone loitering in the driveway and looking over the fence and it looks a bit dodgy you absolutely need to ring it in . . . you're actually going to potentially stop a crime and police would absolutely love to get there. Police can't help if they don't know about it."
Five years ago, the Māngere Bridge community spent $120,000 installing 36 surveillance cameras in public and business areas.
Kate Adams, village centre manager, says many homeowners in the area have also invested in systems.
"They're wireless, they just click into the soffit of your house and you can check on them any time of day. For the price you're paying, for the added security, I think it does make a lot of people feel a bit better - it's just part of the world we live in now."
Pauline Anderson, Business Association chairperson, says "if you commit a crime here you've got a good chance of getting caught . . .the volunteers who are sharing stuff with Community Cam are contributing to the safety of their community".
The cameras do the physical work, but Anderson says human connection is still more important than a screen.
"I grew up in the era where kids just ran free in the neighbourhood. A mother would phone and say 'oh, John's here, I'll feed him and send him home'. You had to be home before dark and your parents didn't know where you were most of the day. It doesn't happen like that any more. Facebook means people are connected, but in a very impersonal way."
Kate Adams: "Someone will complain some man was walking down their driveway in a high-vis and he really wasn't genuinely there to ask if the trees want cutting and then it starts escalating. You ask people if they have reported it to Police 105 and they say 'no'. People just go on Facebook and think it's going to solve all the world's problems unfortunately."
Counties Manukau Senior Sergeant Jeff Waldron says while security cameras are not a complete panacea for crime, when combined with lights, alarms and dogs, they can put houses in the "too hard basket" for many offenders. But he too is concerned at the footage that ends up being viewed by social media followers instead of police.
"People put it on Facebook and they think we know about it but we don't actually have a team that scans looking for crime related things. If it's not reported to us, we don't know about it. If there is a theme or a recurring issue in one area, I think people can get annoyed thinking nothing is happening and the police should know about it, but we won't. The internet is such a big place and we just don't have that resource."
Waldron says "unfettered communication between anybody and everybody" can skew people's perception of their neighbourhoods.
"If you're on Facebook and you've been burgled and you're having a vent, anybody else that has seen that posting is likely to do the same - 'I live down the road and I got burgled as well' . . . I heard a good analogy about this a number of years ago. A caveman coming out of their cave is not going to look around to see the rainbow in the sky, they're going to look around for the sabre tooth tiger..."
Police discourage posting security cam footage for a number of reasons.
"It can create fear in the community. People start getting the wrong idea of what's happening which can lead, in a worst-case scenario, to vigilante-type action," Waldron says.
"The other big concern is that if people post things on Facebook that we could potentially act on or use as part of our prosecution and an offender gets wind of that, then potentially they're going to dispose of evidence. It may jeopardise prosecutions."
And, just because it's on the internet, doesn't mean it's true: "When I worked in Franklin, I'd attend a job and someone would say to me 'did you see that Facebook page that said this and this' . . . and it would be completely off the mark. The police helicopter would be up and someone would say 'oh, it's an aggravated robbery' and it was probably just a shoplifter."
Waldron is an advocate of the Community Cam project as a time saver and potential crime solver for police.
"Say there's a burglary down the road, we can have a look at the police access part of the website, see if there are any cameras in that area and then approach those people to see if they're happy enough to provide us with footage . . . it saves us having to door knock addresses and it saves us from having to potentially go to someone's address with a flash drive and manually get that footage. It's fantastic that the community has come up with a solution that is making our job easier and people safer.
"If it's reported to us and that CCTV footage is provided directly to us, then even if we can't do anything about it we have a picture of what's going on out there. If there are stolen cars getting dumped in a certain street and maybe we don't get forensics from them but we're seeing a pattern, we'll deploy to that and we'll put in more staff and resources. If we're not alerted to it we can't do that."
Digital recordings - and the sharing of those recordings - can land camera operators in hot water.
Kathryn Dalziel is a Christchurch-based barrister and privacy law expert. She says people need to be "very careful" that images or footage posted online does not misrepresent a situation, defame an individual or lead to harassment and bullying.
"Say, for example, I'm the next-door neighbour and I see that a delivery van has pulled up and left a parcel on the front step and I think to myself, 'I might just pop over there and do them a favour and shift it around to the back step' and I'm filmed doing that, and then it's put up online saying I was taking that property or somehow stealing it . . . the poster has got to be very careful that the video is aligning with what they're saying is going on."
Count to 10, says Dalziell, before venting online or, better yet, call the police and contact your neighbours directly.
"If somebody comes onto our property and they're not supposed to be there and then they do something that affects our property, our feeling of safety . . . it engenders understandable anger and feelings of emotion and then we want to lash out.
"Going online has become the way that people are lashing out to try and do something about those feelings, but you've got to make sure you aren't committing an offence."