Law enforcement using Waymo video footage to solve cases

Posted at 6:43 PM, May 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-12 21:43:55-04

PHOENIX — Waymo announced this week it is expanding its range beyond the East Valley to allow a select few members of the public to use the autonomous vehicle service in the downtown Phoenix area.

With more Waymo cars on the road, it brings up an issue the company and law enforcement have been working out for several years; Police using the video footage from Waymo cars as a tool to solve crimes.

Both Chandler and Mesa police departments have used Waymo footage since Waymo began serving the greater Phoenix area back in 2016.

Chandler PD attempted to use Waymo video to solve a hit and run case of a bicyclist.

Mesa PD Sgt. Chuck Trapani says they successfully used Waymo video to get a conviction of a road rage suspect a few years back.

"In this day and age with technology, there are cameras everywhere," Trapani said.

"When we have some type of crime that's honestly that's the first thing our patrol officers and our detectives will follow up on, looking in the area for cameras," he said.

This particular investigation involved a Waymo driver who was actually in the vehicle at the time and the victim in the case.

The Waymo driver was riding behind a motorcycle on Baseline Road and had reason to honk their horn at the motorcycle rider.

Trapani says the incident escalated from there.

"The car pulled over into a parking lot later on and the motorcycle rider approached him, lifted up his shirt, and displayed a firearm," Trapani said.

"He didn't point it or threaten with it, just made the driver aware that he had a firearm. There was an altercation, and they drove off," Trapani said.

Even though this case involved one of its own employees and Waymo reached out to Mesa police, as a policy, Waymo doesn't just give up its video footage. Like most major companies, police have to go through the proper channels to obtain it.

"So one way we go about that, we have to obtain a search warrant through a court. So we develop probable cause, we'll draft a search warrant, and then a judge will sign off on it, and then they'll release the video to us. We attach that to a case, and hopefully, it has some type of evidence value where either it will identify a suspect, or help us prove that a suspect committed the crime," Trapani said.

The video evidence was so clear in this case that the suspect was charged with disorderly conduct, pleaded guilty to the charge, and was sentenced to 18 months probation.

To be clear, some smaller businesses and private homes will offer up their video footage to aid police in an investigation, not requiring them to get a warrant.

"Businesses, like convenience stores, they all have cameras. Personal and private residences, they have cameras, so we'll go knocking on doors and ask them, 'Hey, are you willing, would you mind sharing that video footage because it could've captured a crime which will help further our investigation and hopefully affect and arrest,'" Trapani said.

"Nowadays video is everything, so having it will help further an investigation tremendously," he said.

Waymo makes it clear however it is not in the business of spying on people, releasing the following statement:

"Waymo captures data that's relevant for training our technology, not to identify individuals. As a general matter we require law enforcement agencies who seek information and data from Waymo to follow valid legal processes in making such requests, including securing and presenting a valid warrant. Our policy is to challenge, limit or reject requests that do not have a valid legal basis or that are overly broad." - Nick Smith, Corporate Communications, Waymo.

It's up to lawyers and the courts to determine if police using Waymo footage infringes on people's privacy. For now, it remains a critical tool in helping law enforcement solve crimes.

Trapani says they don't approach Waymo for any and all investigations, only reaching out if they have good reason to believe a Waymo car may have captured legitimate, credible evidence. But the fact alone that so much video is being recorded in so many different places, serves as a deterrent to would-be criminals.

"Before you decide to commit a crime, remember there might be a camera that can identify you, so think twice before doing it," Trapani said.

Waymo released the following timeline regarding their recent expansion in the Phoenix area and west coast:

"On March 30 we announced our plans to start testing in Downtown Phoenix and on Tuesday we announced that we're taking the next step in our multi-geo operations and launching the Waymo One Trusted Tester program in Downtown Phoenix. This marks the third area, in addition to the Phoenix East Valley and San Francisco, where we'll be providing rides to members of the public with our autonomous ride-hailing service. We started testing in the Phoenix area in 2016." - Nick Smith, Corporate Communications, Waymo.