It was a June morning I’ll never forget.
I’d just arrived at work and was about to start looking through the day’s papers and blogs when a friend from down the street called: There was buzz in the neighborhood that police found a body.
The victim was in her 20s, her clothes were stripped … and she was in the lot right behind my apartment. The lot I walked past every night on my way home.
I turned white, hung up the phone, and walked out onto the sidewalk by my work. In the blazing summer sun, my mind reeled.
My 25-year-old sister had never come home the night before. That morning, I just assumed that she’d slept at her boyfriend’s house.
Now, I was seeing the police loading her body into their white van — a scene I didn’t exactly struggle to imagine after working at a Philly newspaper for a few years.
After a few minutes of frantic phone calls, I heard what I still regard as one of the sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear: my baby sister on the other end of the line, telling me how dumb I was to worry.
Of course, there is another family out there that didn’t get to feel that wave of relief. Instead, the family of Sabina Rose O’Donnell had to listen to the horrific details of her murder, beg the public for information, and make funeral arrangements for a 20-year-old girl.
As clearly as I remember the morning they found O’Donnell, I remember another moment just as well — watching the surveillance footage of O’Donnell peddling her bike down Girard Avenue, past the steps where my sister and I often saw her pass by and wave. And there, too, was her killer, 18-year-old Donte Johnson, riding past the never-resting eyes of the security cameras at Front Street and the auto shop across 4th Street.
It was a haunting experience, and during the two weeks it took for police to arrest him, I had Johnson’s image burned into my brain, constantly looking for him to pass my steps again.
And, indeed, it was that same surveillance footage that helped identify Johnson and pressure his family to turn him over to police.
This spring, I had a similar experience as I watched police footage of two armed men assailing a clerk at Trax Foods on Front Street before eventually shooting the innocent man, killing him on the spot. The counter where that murder took place was a familiar place to me, a place where I’d passed over a few dollars in exchange for tokens and coffee and pretzels countless mornings.
Some of the same cameras that captured Donte Johnson also captured Quasheam Richburg, the 20-year-old charged in fatally shooting the clerk, Mustafa Shaker, with a shotgun.
Those images also helped cops track down their suspect, leading to an arrest where there might not have been one
Since those murders, I’ve taken closer notice of the cameras that dot my walk home, little lenses peering down from store windows and doorways.
Maybe, when I was younger, I would have been irked by that intrusion, but these days, I know how those cameras can help bring justice to families, or even just help the police nab a petty crook that makes life in the neighborhood more difficult.
And, just as I look for those cameras on my walks home, the police look for cameras in the aftermath of crime. The difference is, the police are in a race against time, and hunting down those cameras can mean losing the trail. Worse yet, they might altogether miss a camera that captured a crucial detail about a criminal.
Now, Philly residents can make catching criminals an easier task.
A newly launched program, SafeCam, lets businesses and homeowners with cameras register the devices with the Philadelphia Police Department.
If a crime happens, police can instantly access that registry, and if your camera might help, they’ll get in touch to see if your footage caught the suspect.
It’s that easy.
And while it’s hard to say whether cameras can make a person sick enough to commit a cold-blooded murder to think twice, it’s clear that having quick access to cameras in our area can help local police identify and ultimately nab criminals.
To register a camera, just visit https://safecam.phillypolice.com.
From the website:
• Registration is simple and it only takes about 10 minutes to complete the three steps. You will provide basic information and tell us where your cameras are located. There is no cost associated with registration and your information is confidential. You may delete your registration at any time.
• Once you have completed the registration and verification process, a member of the Department will follow up with you to confirm your registration. At this point, you will also receive a PPD SafeCam window decal, which you may proudly display in your home or business.
• You will only be contacted by the Philadelphia Police Department in the future if there is a criminal incident in the vicinity of your security camera. Police personnel, if necessary, may request a copy of any video captured by your camera, which may assist in the investigation of a crime.
You never know, you might just help put the next bad guy behind bars.••
Brian Rademaekers can be reached at 215-354-3039 or firstname.lastname@example.org.