YouTube Proves Worth as Crime-Fighting Tool

Atlanta couple posts footage of burglary on Internet -- and nabs suspects.

Sept. 29, 2009 — -- The videos capture scenes of furtive and not-so-furtive criminal activity: a house break-in in Florida; prowlers in Los Angeles, lurking outside Lindsay Lohan's door.

No, it's not a bold new reality series. The videos are part of a novel approach to crime fighting.

In the old days, property owners seeking to discourage trespassers had dogs. In Westerns they have rifles. But these days, there is a new weapon: the Internet.

In Atlanta, Dan and Alyssa Kopp are taking advantage of that weapon, fighting crime with YouTube.

"It's an emerging neighborhood, the problems are what they are," Alyssa Kopp said of the couple's locale. "Police cannot be everywhere, so rather than being reactive to a problem, we took a proactive approach."

The Kopps declined to say exactly how many cameras they have around their home.

"We have a number of them," Dan Kopp said.

"We're a little elusive about that," his wife added.

One video the Kopps shot, which now has more than 40,000 views on YouTube, shows a break-in at their Atlanta home one year ago, while they were at work.

"We were both at work and received a call from our alarm company that the alarm was going off ... there was no reason for it to be going off, so we told them to dispatch the police," Alyssa Kopp said. "When we got home, we found out that our house had been broken into, that our door had been kicked in and some items were missing, including a flat-screen TV, a laptop and a digital camera."

"It was just like fear and panic and, you know, the moment you hoped would never come and there it was right in front of you," Dan Kopp said.

As bad as the moment was, it was also a chance for filmmaking, because the Kopps had installed a video surveillance system and caught the whole thing on tape.

"We pulled up the video for the police," Alyssa Kopp said. "It was a rarity for them to have something like that at their disposal, you know, to help them, so they were pretty excited and they actually encouraged us to maybe get it out to local news, to see if we could get it publicized to try and get an I.D., a tip, anything."

Viral Videos on YouTube Used to Fight Crime

For police, video surveillance is like the holy grail of crime fighting.

"It's irrefutable evidence," Atlanta Police Department Maj. Renee Propes said. "First off, if you catch somebody on camera committing a crime, how can they tell you that they didn't do it?"

But video can be more than just a police tool.

"The second thing is that it just really gives citizens a way of sharing information amongst themselves," Propes said. "They have this video, they can put it out on YouTube or on their neighborhood talk groups, and if the perpetrator isn't identified, [it] can help us to hopefully identify that perpetrator by people in the neighborhood."

And that is why the Kopps posted their video on Facebook, YouTube -- anything they could think of.

"Yeah, we posted it on YouTube, not to like just, you know, send out to everybody so everyone could see it. It was to pass it around to the community to say, 'Look, these people in this car are driving around this neighborhood -- be on the lookout.'"

Around Atlanta, they were on the lookout. The police arrested the suspects from the Kopps' video after getting a tip from a caller who said, "I am watching the people I saw on YouTube unloading a TV at home." The case is currently in court.

The Kopps got their stuff back. It would be an amazing story if it stopped there, but it didn't.

"About a month ago now, the same thing happens," Dan Kopp recently told "Nightline." "Get the call from the alarm company, get the call from my neighbors that my alarm's going off and, you know, it starts all over again."

After the first break-in, the Kopps upgraded their video equipment, adding more and better cameras.

"Yeah, and this time, you know, no hesitation," Dan Kopp said. "It was, 'Here we go again, get it on YouTube as fast as we can.'

"This time we used our network of friends in the Intown neighborhood for a slightly different purpose," he said. "This time it wasn't 'Look out for this car,' it was 'Spread this video. Help it go viral again, because it had such good success last time.'"

Home Surveillance Video Helps Cops ID Burglary Suspects

And once again, thanks in part to the video getting online and on TV, police arrested one suspect and have a warrant out for a second one. Two additional suspects, still unidentified, are being sought.

"We were finally able to connect the perpetrator -- figure out who one of the perpetrators is -- and knocked on his door," Propes said. "His uncle immediately said, 'Oh, you must be here about the video.' I mean, he had even seen it and knew that his nephew had been involved in a crime."

Police departments are increasingly using YouTube and social networking to solve crimes. The Dallas and Los Angeles police forces post surveillance videos on their own sites.

Propes calls it a hi-tech neighborhood watch.

"Traditional neighborhood watch is ... Gladys Kravitz, you know, that watched out her window and ... kept up with the comings and goings of the neighborhood," she said, referring to the nosey character in the classic sit-com Bewitched.

"Now we have video cameras and people sharing access to their video cameras," Propes said. "They're posting it to YouTube and everybody has access to it, not just people in the neighborhood, but people in the next neighborhood and the next neighborhood after that. They can look at this and say, 'Hey, I think I might know who this guy is.'"

In Jonesboro, Ga., Bryan Tumlin, owner of Newnan Telecom, was installing a new video system for George Bush (no, not that George Bush).

"It's heating up, yes," said Tumlin. So I think we're headed up -- not just us but everybody, really."

The homeowner with the presidential handle said he hoped having video of any possible crime committed at his home would help police catch the culprits.

"Well, the reason we're installing this camera system is to give us another layer of security," said Bush. "We hope we'll have a record of any break-in that takes place so we can go after the people that do it."

Bush said he would jump at the chance to post a break-in video on YouTube.

"More people will see it, and the more people that see it will hopefully identify the people who did the crime," said Bush.

Criminals Use YouTube to Post 'How-To' Videos

Of course, there is a downside to YouTube when it comes to crime: The bad guys use it too. There are all kinds of "how-to" videos on shoplifting and lock-picking.

Propes said that was a negative development.

"I think anything where bad guys are sharing information -- how to become better bad guys -- is bad for us, yeah, I think it's bad for everybody," she said.

But on balance, police say, video technology and Internet sharing are helpful in solving crimes, which is some solace to Dan and Alyssa Kopps, though it doesn't make the crime go away.

"I would never want this to happen to anybody," Dan Kopp said. "You know, it's nice that there's been some consolation, that the guys have been caught, but you know, I still had to replace my door and lose money from my insurance company and go to court and take time off of work and sit in a courtroom with the people who kicked in my door, you know?"

Alyssa Kopp agreed.

"Yes, if I had my choice in my 15 minutes of fame, it would not be through this," she said.

The Kopps are hoping the video will help identify the last two suspects in the August burglary.