HACKENSACK, N.J. — It was a crime scene video like no other.
The three-minute tape, replayed dozens of times on nightly newscasts over the past two weeks, showed a young mother savagely and senselessly beaten by an intruder in her New Jersey living room, all in front of her 3-year-old daughter. She is punched, kicked and, when she can barely pull herself upright or form a coherent answer to her attacker’s questions, thrown down the stairs.
The unsettling — yet transfixing — footage, captured by the family’s nanny cam and provided to the media with the victim’s consent, went viral almost as soon as it was released. It hooked more than a million viewers on YouTube in a matter of days. And a suspect with a long rap sheet of brutal crimes was arrested shortly after it went public.
It has also renewed a simmering debate about the proper use of such graphic images, a discussion that sets its value as a crime-fighting device against invasion-of-privacy and victims’ rights concerns.
The nanny cam video was a departure from earlier surveillance footage because the image was clearer and it was released in its entirety — it is much more common for investigators to clip out still photos that show a suspect’s face. It allowed millions of people to watch a crime unfold in the privacy of the victim’s home. And it will undoubtedly take on an uncontrollable life on the Internet long after the suspect, a 42-year-old serial burglar named Shawn Curtis, has been tried. He pleaded not guilty to charges that included attempted murder at his arraignment last week in Superior Court in Newark.
To law enforcement experts, the video — a rare demonstration of the true horror of a violent crime in progress — offered an unparalleled tool in a criminal investigation, the power of which was clearly demonstrated by the quick resolution of the investigation.
“I think it drove home to everyone, not just law enforcement but the public, not only how violent this attack was, but other incidents that aren’t captured on video,” said Thomas Fennelly, chief assistant Essex County prosecutor, who credited the video’s release with the swift resolution of the investigation.
“It was very important in letting both the public and law enforcement know what a victim goes through.”
But privacy advocates and media scholars said it also raised difficult questions that were overshadowed in the frenzy to capture the suspect.
“It’s just gratuitous violence,” said Parry Aftab, a Bergen County attorney who specializes in online privacy. “It’s revictimization of the victim, even with her permission.”
She added that she had never seen such a violent video released during an investigation.
Critics have debated the value, and the allure, of graphic depictions of violence far longer than cameras have existed. Images of beheadings, flagellations and crucifixions are a staple of classic art. Reporting on crimes and other misfortunes in so-called yellow journalism created the foundation for modern American media.
The late writer Susan Sontag, commenting on war photographs, pointed out that it is important to allow such images to haunt us.
“The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing — may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously,” she once wrote. “Don’t forget.”
But the relentless advance of surveillance technology and the increasingly rapid and pervasive reach of such images on the Internet have pushed the threshold on what types of images are released.
Police departments, including those in Philadelphia and Sussex County, have had to discipline officers for snapping gruesome cellphone pictures at crime scene investigations that later went viral. Those pictures included a beheaded victim of a car crash, the bodies of murder-suicide victims and the bloodstained, lifeless body of a man shot by police shortly after he had killed another cop.
In June, the children of a man whose suicide was accidentally broadcast live on Fox News sued the network. Their mother claimed that the three boys were severely traumatized when they accidentally viewed the footage on YouTube, not knowing the suicide they were about to see was their father’s.
In the nanny cam case, the victim and her husband told investigators about the video almost immediately after the attack.
Law enforcement officials have not released the victim’s name, but she and her husband told News 12 that they made a clear decision to release the tape.
“They need to help us get him off the streets,” she told News 12. “He’s not just a burglar. He’s violent.”
That consent was all investigators needed. They handed the video over to the media with little internal discussion, Fennelly said.
“Our job is to investigate crimes that occur,” he said. “This enabled us to continue the investigation.”
After that, the footage took on a life of its own. Some media outlets broadcast it unedited. Some blurred the victim and her daughter, who sat silently on a couch clutching a blanket. Some muted the sounds of the woman’s screams.
The result was shocking to even longtime law enforcement investigators.
Joseph Pollini, a former cold-case homicide squad commander in the New York City Police Department, said he saw the clip at least six times and its effect was never dulled.
“I wished I was still in the police department, so I could be part of chasing him down,” he said.
Pollini and other former law enforcement officials said the brutality of the scene probably served a dual purpose. It would deter anyone from helping a suspect hide. It would also encourage casual viewers to protect their own homes.
Joseph L. Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and author of a well-regarded guide to criminal investigations, “The Criminal Investigative Function,” said police departments nevertheless wrestle with decisions to release graphic crime-scene footage.
They consider how likely the suspect would be to strike again, how quickly they need to act, and whether they can find a mug shot or a still photo that would identify the suspect.
“Believe me, they sit and struggle with these things,” he said. “Sometimes, there is no other way to get it out there.”
As an officer, he said, he once agonized over releasing a much grainer video of a sexual assault of a 78-year-old woman in an elevator. The only clear shot of the assailant’s face was during the rape. His department released it with the woman blacked out.
“You can almost see what’s going on, but it’s blurred,” he said. He credited the collective public outcry over the image for the suspect’s arrest.
The public tolerance for such violent images has increased as crime-scene videos have become more commonplace, said Jon Shane, a retired Newark police captain and assistant professor in the department of law, police science and criminal justice administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The shoulder-mounted camcorder that caught the beating of Rodney King soon gave way to images from dashboard cameras that captivated viewers of the “Cops” reality TV series, first broadcast nearly a quarter-century ago. The digital cameras that captured shots of people falling to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center on Sept. 11 have been replaced by cellphones that are at the ready to post videos of any spontaneous display of street violence on Facebook as it happens.
Nanny cams — pocket-size home surveillance cameras that can be hidden in household objects — first hit the market in the mid-1990s and have been used in criminal prosecutions of child abuse. Fennelly, of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, said this is the first example he knew of one’s having been used in a criminal assault investigation in his department.
But as people have become more accustomed to being filmed, Shane said, victims are also more likely to sacrifice their privacy to further an investigation.
“We’re all becoming, in some form or fashion, less private,” he said. “Our private lives are more on public display.”
But Aftab, the Bergen County attorney, said it would be impossible for a victim to be in a mental state truly to judge the lasting repercussions of the release of such footage in the brief window required by an investigation. She also questioned the actual value of releasing the video, rather than cutting out still photographs of the suspect. The video can always be shown during a trial, where its dissemination would be much easier to control.
“A public display of her molestation would not help her case at all,” she said.
The nanny cam video, which was filmed in color, also introduced an unspoken racial element to the crime: The attacker in the film was clearly black. The victim appeared to be white. Their races were noted on dozens of Internet postings, one of which blared, “Black man commits home invasion, beats white woman in front of toddler.”
Clay Calvert, author of “Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy and Peering in Modern Culture” and director of the Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, said the victim could try to control the reuse of the video. Because it was filmed by her camera, she owns the copyright and could sue Internet posters who reproduce it outside of its original purpose. But the spread of such images is notoriously hard to control, partly because they appeal to the basest of human instincts.
“There is something voyeuristic about watching it,” he said. “Once you open the door to this type of video, you have to ask yourself, ‘Where does it stop?’ If he had stabbed her with a knife, would you stop it? If you saw blood? Where do you get to the point where you say, ‘No, we’re not going to show this anymore?’ ”
Distributed by MCT Information Services