There is a myriad of wireless video surveillance systems on the market, ranging in cost from $250 to multiple thousands of dollars. Obviously, the capability and complexity of the system increases with its cost. Anecdotal reports from a few local associations show that it might cost upwards of $2,000 for a condominium or homeowner association to purchase and install an appropriate system. The more practical question is not cost, but monitoring. Video can be recorded remotely or seen real time from a computer, tablet or smart phone. Who from the association will watch the many hours of mindless video, especially if multiple cameras are used? It is impractical to expect a board member or manager to perform this time consuming task. Accordingly, some communities rely upon community watch members to view video while others contract this service out to a security company for a fee.
The number one goal of video surveillance is crime prevention. In addition to stopping serious crimes, such as car prowls, assaults, vandalism and drug activity, video surveillance can also be used to enforce CC&R violations for associations. Owners who park in visitor stalls or fail to keep dogs on leashes, for example, can be confronted with irrefutable evidence of their wrongdoing. To be most effective, those being watched should know that the cameras are actually working and that the video is being monitored. The association should post signs not only warning persons that the area they are in is being monitored, but that specific action will be taken if crimes or CC&R violations are committed.
A board should keep in mind that video surveillance is only part of a broader security program that integrates one or more of the following: paid security guards, safety doors and locks with close control of access keys (digital or other), community/neighborhood watch programs, specially designed fencing, landscaping and lighting, and close coordination with local police liaison or community resource officers.
Associations should beware that video surveillance has its share of detractors and controversy. Challengers to increased surveillance Argue that video cameras inflict injury, whether or not they reduce crime. First Amendment proponents claim the cameras constitute a form of government or quasi-government sponsored intrusion on personal conduct, even when that conduct is perfectly legal. The opponents also cite a “slippery slope” argument that broad surveillance will lead to more targeted and focused monitoring of private behavior.
For condominium and homeowner associations, one must ask what expectation of privacy exists for an owner walking through an association parking lot or other common area. It is doubtful that a community association would purchase and deploy a surveillance system with capability to zoom into interiors of cars or eavesdrop on private conversations. Arguments that surveillance of a parking lot is only the first step before monitoring bathroom stalls or individual homes should also be dismissed as outrageous or inciting.
A homeowner who is caught failing to pick up after her dog on the HOA’s camera aimed at the parking lot to deter car prowls may claim that rules violation wasn’t the purpose of the camera—that “it’s not fair” that she was observed. But the bottom line is her action violated the association’s rules. She was not targeted nor was her action “innocent.” She was caught red handed, or more accurately, empty handed.
Importantly, associations who utilize video surveillance, or any security steps, should provide a written disclaimer to all owners that the association’s efforts are not designed to ensure a safe, risk-free environment. In adopting the measures, the association is not taking responsibility for the welfare of its members and guests, and each owner must exercise diligence and common sense. There have been cases outside of Washington where condominiums who employed security measures but did not provide any type of written disclaimer were held liable when an owner or guest was harmed on the premises and proved in court that the association created a heightened standard of care. Signs posted within the community notifying persons of video surveillance should also include a short liability disclaimer.
Video surveillance’s popularity is increasing. When deployed thoughtfully and reasonably, this technology can be a useful tool in deterring crime and CC&R violations within community associations.