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|| News Item: Posted 2008-11-02

Ask Sports Shooter: Theft, a victim's and law enforcement officer's perspective
By Dirk Dewachter

Photo by Dirk Dewachter

Photo by Dirk Dewachter

A fingerprint examiner's loupe sits atop a ten print card used to compare latent prints found at crime scenes and stolen property.
When I read a post on the message board that a fellow Sports Shooter member has fallen victim to some sticky fingers, a rock head or hype looking for stuff to quickly turn into cash for his next high or just an opportunistic criminal, I cringe.

Back in 2003, I lost most of my photo gear when I became the victim of a theft from my motor vehicle. Reading such a post instantly transports me back to my own incident: the frustration, the second-guessing, the "why me?" questions and the guaranteed period of uncertainty that set in immediately following the discovery. I was left with no gear and a brain full of unanswered questions: How do I complete my upcoming shoot schedule? Am I going to lose earnings? Am I going to see my equipment back? The loss can emotionally beat on you and cause some sleepless nights.

Granted, material things can be replaced but after all, when we as photographers lose our gear to theft we lose the ability to earn a living. The camera(s), lens(es), lighting gear are essential. Harder to replace, however, are all those little things; tools, items and gadgets we've gathered over the years of assisting and shooting, that can help us out in a pinch fixing something on a remote photo shoot set. In one swoop, all of it was gone. Can you remember all of the equipment that you keep in your bag?

The irony of my loss lies in the fact that for nearly twelve years as a law enforcement officer, I have provided advice to scores of theft victims in the hopes that somehow my suggestions would help prevent any further or repetitive loss and/or victimization by the thugs and thieves of their neighborhood. I do not know how many cases of victims of burglaries, theft from motor vehicles, smash and grabs, shoplifters, robberies, and thefts in general and a whole list of other property crime victims I worked while on uniformed patrol in a crime-ridden area of South Central Los Angeles. Let's face it, it is a numbers game and victims who live in a high crime area are statistically targets for repeat occurrences not necessarily by the same suspect(s).

As I moved on from patrol, my interest in photography combined with my law enforcement career, when I transferred into our forensic service section and spent four years as a crime scene photographer and investigator. Believe me, it is not as glamorous as the television shows lead you to think, yet the work is extremely challenging and rewarding when you connect the dots and help put a crook in prison. While working as a crime scene investigator, I divided my work schedule between processing the obvious crime scenes, which included residential and commercial burglaries.

A great deal of the work load, however, was to process recovered stolen cars, thefts from motor vehicles, evidence and/or recovered stolen property looking for fingerprints in the hopes of running the latent prints through the databases to identify who the sticky fingers were attached to. The odds aren't stacked in the favor of the victim or law enforcement; however, there are a number of things one can do to minimize the risk of becoming a victim. If you do become a victim of theft, you will be better prepared to aid and contribute in the search to recover your stolen property.

Being a victim is extremely traumatic. Most commonly, victims will display fear, anxiety, anger, shame, as well as experience some loss of sleep. In the case of theft victims, there will be loads of self-blame being carried around. Studies have shown that some victims will develop chronic PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Victimization does alter one's psychological reactions, as there will be a belief of heightened personal vulnerability, increased negative perceptions of other persons, as well as the viewing of oneself in a more negative light. If you become the victim of a crime, a range of emotions will present itself to you as well.

Can we predict whether or not we will become the victim of a crime? For the most part, I would say not, since I found out that there is no magic shield. Clearly, I just ignored my own advice that one time because I was too lazy to unload the gear as I was going out again on another shoot within six hours. Although unscientifically derived, my experiences of investigating crimes have shown, that if we modify our behavioral patterns in the environment in which we work we may reduce the risk of exposure to being victimized.

As photographers we travel often and frequently by different means of transportation. We navigate our way through towns and cities on unfamiliar roads and freeways, as well as airports, car rental companies, sporting and other venues, client-owned buildings, and hotels and motels. The constant is people, lots of them, and most of them are strangers. We are trained observers, but do we employ that skill to protect ourselves from the thieves or crooks lurking amongst the crowds? And blending right into the crowds they will be; the crooks certainly don't wear labels or identity tags. Let your sixth sense, and sometimes your common sense, guide your decision making when you venture into an area or building.

There are several aspects of police training that I apply in my personal life; know where you are at all times, know your surroundings and trust no one. All too often, we are very wary when we go into unknown territories for the very first time, but as time goes by we often become complacent when returning to that same area or venue. That is a dangerous mindset. We become creatures of habit and allow our guard to drop once we re-enter familiar territory.

My experience when covering USC football games at the Los Angeles Coliseum is that there are always equipment bags and backpacks lined up against the stands. We huddle around them before the game but once the action starts and we focus on the game, who is watching the bags?

Preparing for an assignment should not be restricted to just researching the subject matter of your shoot. With today's technology, it is easy to take off from your home or office with your iPhone, smart phone and laptop and find a restaurant or anything else for that matter on a moment's notice. But honestly, would you go shoot a Halloween-related subject matter at night near 103rd & Compton in South Central Los Angeles by yourself without trying to find out more information about the location? Sometimes you just cannot be thorough, but when you have time to prepare, do some research as to where you are going. The Internet has become a great resource, but don't overlook calling or even stopping by the local police station and asking them about the area. They can give you detailed information and some sound safety advice you won't find via the Internet.

Photo by Dirk Dewachter

Photo by Dirk Dewachter

A fingerprint examiner's loupe sits atop a print card, containing a recovered latent print, for examination purposes before entering the recovered print in a fingerprint database.
With that in mind, one thing that always stood out in highway robberies was the fact that the victim was alone. More importantly, though, they were lost, did not know where they were, were preoccupied looking for something or they just did not pay attention to what was going on around them. When you are looking through your trusty viewfinder to focus, you cannot watch your back. Remember, there is always safety in numbers. Bring somebody along; such as an assistant or a friend, to help monitor what is going on around you. However, keep in mind that although they can keep an eye on the rest of the gear while you work, even then things can still go wrong. Just read John Harrington's blog.

Prepare ahead of time for the safety of your equipment in large venues or at large gatherings. Do you enter the stadium carrying everything you need for the job and leave the rest locked up in your car, or do you bring it all into the venue? This decision may be driven by the requirements of the assignment.

If you decide to bring your gear into the stadium in a bag, you should have an assistant with you to watch the gear bags while you are shooting the event, or have a method of securing your locked equipment bags. Bringing extra padlocks, preferably with number combination locks and short metal safety wires with reinforced eye loops can provide impromptu security when attached to a heavy inert object.

Our most common means of transportation to arrive at an assignment is most likely going to be a car, whether it is your own car or a rental when working in a different city. While we carry the key, a thief, who wants to get in, will get in, but don't leave any open invitations by leaving valuables in plain sight.

Sophisticated crews can take advantage of design flaws to gain access. There was a wave of third row seat thefts from Suburbans/Yukons near LAX. A crew figured out how to bypass the alarm system of the vehicles and make off with the third row seat in less than two minutes once they targeted a vehicle.

We have heard of follow-home robberies from casinos and banks, but within the last few years, photography retail and rental houses have seen an increase in similar incidents involving their customers. The unsuspecting customer leaves the store with a high value purchase or fills up a van with the rental gear, and is then followed home by a gang of crooks or just followed until the customer makes a stop. The thieves either then break into the car to grab the purchase, or in some cases, just steal the van with all the rental gear still inside. Pay attention while driving. Look around in the parking lot before you leave, and while driving check your rear view mirror from time to time. It never hurts to be cautious!

Smash and grabs are far more common methods to gain entry into a car and those are often sparked because the driver left an invitation in plain view. These days, rental cars are easily spotted with their bar-coded label in one of the windows, and some crooks will just roll the dice forcing the trunk open hoping the poor saps left all their belongings in there.

One of our fellow Sports Shooter members implemented an effective security measure when traveling to and from assignments. A large pelican case holds all of his gear and is anchored inside his truck with several padlocks securing its contents.

I have investigated many such incidents, and after having interviewed many suspects that were caught with their hand in the cookie jar, almost all of them admitted to some extent that they saw an opportunity to complete their act and get away, just that simple. Without a suspect in custody, you are only left guessing, but for the most part thefts are crimes of opportunity. With that in mind, the harder you make it for a thief to gain access or walk away with your property, the more he or she is going to look for an easier target, which means he'll look for another victim.

Photo by Dirk Dewachter

Photo by Dirk Dewachter

A fingerprint examiner's loupe sits atop a ten print card used to compare latent prints found at crime scenes and stolen property.
I hope nobody else has to experience a theft of his or her equipment, but the world is certainly not perfect. If and when you become a victim, you will be are looking for answers as well as looking to the police to find your gear. The chances of them finding that gear may increase when you, the victim, take some steps well before your equipment is stolen from either a venue or from your parked car.

Which brings me to call your attention to the concept of inventory management. If your idea of inventory management is to provide the police officer a list from memory the day of your loss, you are too late as your memory will prove to be highly ineffective. Guaranteed, you will forget to list numerous items. Many of us carry theft and liability insurance associated with our business and for the higher valued items, the carrier requests a detailed list including the value and the serial numbers. That list is a great start and every year you should review it for accuracy prior to renewal of the policy.

Being organized at all times will aid you even further when inventorying your equipment bags. I don't mix and match bags, meaning each of my equipment bags is for a specific purpose. One is for cameras and lenses, one is for small location lighting, one is for studio set ups, and other bags are for lighting stands and light modifiers. Keep your equipment bags packed the same way all the time all of the time, you'll quickly notice something is missing.

Along with doing that, you should mark all of your equipment in a consistent fashion with your initials or a code, so when it is recovered, you can readily identify it as your property. In the absence of a serial number, that marking will be your only and best method of identifying ownership of your equipment.

The big ticket items are a given and are easy to research when you have to, but another lesson I learned during my loss was the fact that I was seriously under insured. It was an unintentional oversight, but at that time I had not kept a full and complete list of everything that I owned photography wise. It was all those little odds and ends, filters, memory cards, cables, remotes, etcetera that add up very quickly to a sum larger than what you realize is the actual replacement valuation.

Use an Excel file to create a flat database for your insurance carrier but add on everything you buy and categorize it by type of equipment; cameras, lenses, lighting, grip, filtration, etcetera with a full description including at a minimum the brand, description, serial number, purchase price, and even include where you bought it.

The Excel list can be copied to a Word document or you can extract a pdf file from it. I highly recommend that you save a copy of the file to a flash drive, the SD card in your Palm Treo or even on your iPhone, but save it on something you will carry with you at all times. The object is to have ready access to it, and if you don't carry any of those items, you could print out the file and keep a copy of it somewhere in your car. This brings us to the point of contact with law enforcement. It is a traumatic event, but unless you were robbed at gunpoint, try to remain calm, gather your thoughts and retrace your steps or actions. It will help you to convey your information efficiently to law enforcement officers.

You will have to educate the responding officer. When is the last time any one talked to a police officer about pocket wizards, power packs, or soft boxes? Having that list in print form, or at least be able to provide the officer with an electronic copy at the time of the initial report, will help law enforcement initiate the investigation. It is important to provide an accurate list as early as possible so the law enforcement agency will be able to enter the information into the Department of Justice Stolen Property Index. This index is a nationwide database and is currently accessible from the MDT's in most police vehicles. For example, Officers will be able to run a D3 or Mark III that Mr. Rock Head was carrying in his pocket or bag without a lens and especially without a receipt, because he just bought it for twenty bucks.

Thieves steal things most often to support drug habits or to make money so the stolen merchandise has to show up somewhere. A lot of times these items end up in pawn shops and experienced burglary and theft investigators will establish relationships with pawnshop owners and employees in an effort to get them to tip them on suspicious customers who may be pawning items. In California, pawnbrokers submit a record of every item that is pawned to their local law enforcement agency, which in turn will enter that record in a pawned property database. Investigators will check both databases in an attempt to match the property to the victim in order to return stolen items to the victim.

Frequently, narcotics units and burglary units will write search warrants for an unrelated investigation to your theft, and upon serving that search warrant at a dope dealer's or fence's residence will find rooms, garages, attics and storage units full of stolen property waiting to be marketed. It is at that time that stolen property will be recovered and if you provided law enforcement with an accurate list, chances are that you will be reunited with your equipment.

Recently, one of our patrol units responded to a call of a suspicious person just sitting in his car in a residential area. When the officers made contact, the suspect provided them with false information about his identity and they figured something was wrong with this guy. After taking him into custody for the false identity information, they searched his vehicle and found a brand new Nikon camera and lens. The subject was arrested and a large number of items from his car were booked into evidence.

The burglary detectives handling the case show up at my desk and asked me to help them locate the owner of this brand new Nikon. The serial number had not been entered in the Stolen Property Index and after calling Nikon in New York; they provided the name of the retail store where the camera store had been shipped.

A call to my contact at the store gave me the owner's name and a subsequent call to him revealed his office had been burglarized about a week ago but he never provided the other agency with the serial number or description of the items stolen. The phone tagging call between Nikon, the retailer and the victim alone took three days to put together. The suspect was charged with additional crimes as a result of it and the camera was returned to the rightful owner.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned here but most important is how to protect yourself as much as possible from theft. Be smart and be pro-active. Someone who operates a photography business without theft insurance is gambling with their expensive equipment investment, and if you purchase insurance, do not cut corners and under estimate the value of your equipment. Make a list. Stay in touch with your insurance carrier or agent so you can request insurance riders when renting equipment from rental houses. Protect yourself because the rental house will hold you accountable.

As part of your business operation, prepare yourself and implement an inventory management system to mark your equipment and keep the inventory up to date. Don't be lazy or complacent, pay attention to your surroundings and take measures to secure your equipment making it harder for the opportunistic crook to steal it.

In a perfect world, where high morals and standards would be the rule, there would be no need for all these precautions. The reality is you can only trust yourself. Be prepared and minimize your risk by taking preventive measures.

See you on the sidelines!

(Dirk Dewachter is a detective with a municipal police department in Los Angeles County and freelance photographer. You can see his member page at .)

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