4 Things HOAs and Property Managers Should Include in Their Security Camera Policy, Plans, and Procedures

Homeowners associations (HOAs) and property managers (and many organizations) should have a written security policy, and this policy or written procedures should also cover their video surveillance system. A security policy for any organization is the most important item of a security program; everything flows from policy, including security plans and procedures. Unfortunately, many organizations do not have a security policy.

And based on our experience conducting security risk assessments for HOAs and other organizations, even fewer organizations have camera-specific policies, plans, or procedures. These documents are especially important for residential subdivisions and managed properties (e.g., apartments, condominiums, nursing homes) that employ camera systems. The documents prevent confusion, manage expectations, and can even facilitate law enforcement investigations.

There are no strict rules for how these camera policies, plans, and procedures should be promulgated; they can be included in an overarching security policy for the property or they can be included in a separate security manual, guide, or pamphlet created for homeowners and renters. Here are four camera-related items or information that HOAs and property managers should include in their security policy or other formal documents.

1. The primary purpose of the camera system is not to deter crime. We feel this should be explicitly stated in a security policy, manual, or guide, due to the rampant misperception about the deterrent value of cameras. While the deterrent effect of a camera system could be of benefit (it usually is for individual homes), deterrence should never be the primary reason for cameras or any security system. The deterrence record of camera systems is mixed–at best–even for community camera systems owned and operated by law enforcement.

HOAs and property managers should consider making it clear in their security policy or other documents to homeowners/renters that the main purpose of the community camera system is not to deter crime, and they should not expect the system to do so. Another option is to state that the system will not deter all crime.

2. The purpose and limitations of the camera system. Most individuals outside of the security field are unaware of the limitations inherent in video surveillance, especially wide-area community cameras. All surveillance cameras should have a clear purpose, which is indicative of their capabilities and limitations. The video in this post describes a common methodology in the security industry: DORI, which is stands for detection, observation, recognition, and identification. Generally, the wider a camera’s view, the lower its resolution. The narrower the camera’s view, the higher its resolution, generally. Think of handheld point-and-shoot cameras with zoom. The more you zoom out, the more area you see, but your subject gets smaller and its details are harder to see. The more you zoom in, the easier it is to see details on your subject, but many things are now outside the camera’s frame.

Camera that could be used for only detection or observation

“Detection” in DORI means the camera system has a relatively wide view (“zoomed out”) to detect subjects and movement across a wide area (e.g., a large parking lot or a large area of a subdivision) but with relatively low resolution. It provides only sufficient detail to allow a person or vehicle in motion to be detected and distinguished from the surrounding background. A camera with this capability might not even allow you to tell the make, model, or color of a vehicle or the color of clothes a person is wearing. The resolution might only show that the vehicle is a light or dark color, and that it might be car instead of a SUV.

Camera that could be used for identification

At the other end of the spectrum (no pun intended), cameras that are used for identification generally have a narrower field of view and higher resolution, which could allow for the identification of people. For example, law enforcement can determine if a suspect in the footage is the same person in a mugshot or someone in custody.

Some cameras have zoom capability, which can further complicate the DORI concept, as a camera might be used for recognition (i.e., someone who knows the person well on the footage can identify them) but can be zoomed in to help with identification. The subject’s distance from the camera also changes a camera’s capability. For example, a camera might have identification capability only when a subject is within a certain distance from the camera. A combination of capabilities can also occur because a mixture of camera models are installed. Security professionals have general guidelines on the required resolution (in pixels per foot or meter) for each of the DORI levels, although there are no industry-wide standards. And no, unlike in unrealistic CSI shows on TV, investigators cannot make pixels that don’t exist at the time of recording, so zooming in on wide-area, low resolution, recorded footage to identify a suspect almost never occurs.

Ideally, HOAs and property managers know if their camera system is capable of detection, or observation, or recognition, or identification, or a combination thereof. If the purpose of the camera system is known, its limitations are also known. So high resolution cameras used for identification at entry and exit doors do not have a wide field of view and might not capture a mugging that appears to be only several feet to the side of the door. Similarly, community camera systems that are popular in many residential subdivisions are usually detection or observation systems. They cover a very wide area, but are almost never capable of being used to identify a criminal suspect unless other things fall into place, such as eyewitnesses, footage from home camera systems, tracking by various cameras, etc.

Information about the camera system provided to homeowners and renters can also include the camera system’s storage capacity for its footage. All camera systems have storage limitations–assuming they even have storage capacity–after which footage is overwritten. Homeowners and renters should be cognizant of this limitation before an incident that affects them. Is footage stored for one week, one month, or three months? Homeowners and renters should also know if the community camera system is actively monitored (i.e., someone monitors camera system footage 24/7 in real time) or if the system is passively monitored (the footage is simply reviewed after the HOA or property manager is notified of an incident). The latter can take hours or days to retrieve footage, based on a few factors.

House with insufficient outdoor lighting

3. Community camera systems do not alleviate the need for homeowners to be responsible for their own security measures. Based on our experience, HOAs, homeowners, and renters sometimes have undue confidence in their community camera systems. Often, this results in homeowners foregoing a multifaceted, security-in-depth approach to personal security. This is especially true for homeowners in a subdivision; generally, property managers have more responsibility for security for their managed properties than do HOAs for a subdivision. Security-in-depth for homeowners in a subdivision should include installing a camera or cameras on the exterior of their home, ensuring appropriate outdoor lighting on their property at night, reporting failing or failed light posts, and security-minded landscaping–including trimming trees and shrubs to maintain sight lines of the property from inside the home.

HOAs and property managers can mitigate against homeowners’ and renters’ overreliance on the cameras by including in a security policy, plan, manual, or guide a few sentences acknowledging that the video surveillance system is unlikely to deter crime, describing the purpose and limitations of the system, and that homeowners and renters (especially the former) need to take a multi-faceted approach to security.

4. Camera footage access and chain of custody.  In their security policies, plans, and procedures HOAs and property managers should include who has access to the camera system’s footage, the procedures to request footage, and the procedures used to provide footage to law enforcement. In terms of access to and requesting footage, reasonable policy and procedure might include who on the HOA board can access the footage, the circumstances in which homeowners and renters can request footage (or if they will never be granted access), and how they go about requesting footage.

The legal system has strict chain of custody requirements to prevent the tainting or modification of evidence. For example, it can be problematic in court if an HOA provides camera footage to a homeowner who then provides the footage to the police. Convicts have appealed convictions that relied on camera footage that did not have a chain of custody that went directly from the camera system’s recorder to law enforcement. A perfect storm can arise if an overeager HOA board member or property manager sends footage to law enforcement and that law enforcement entity or individual is not a stickler for chain of custody.

The policy and or procedures–much of this would be the later–should also detail record keeping requirements for requests by homeowners/renters and law enforcement entities (HOA/property manager main point(s) of contact, name of the requester, police case numbers, etc.). These procedures can be internal to the HOA board and property manager.

Usually, video surveillance systems are installed without the benefit of an unbiased, independent security risk assessment, which is almost never a good idea (such an assessment should inform your camera requirements including the purpose of each camera and recommended camera placements). And camera system vendors sometimes do not explicitly explain the limitations of the system they are selling or leasing to the client. These factors often result in HOAs, property managers, and homeowners/renters, who are generally unfamiliar with security systems, having unrealistic expectations for their installed cameras.


The absence of written security policy and procedures further exacerbates the situation, leading to frustration when an expensive camera system is unhelpful in investigating a crime on the property or in the subdivision because of its low camera resolution. This frustration can be especially acute for homeowners who pay high HOA dues. Including the four items we’re highlighted in a written security policy, plan, manual, or procedures will prevent many of the camera-related problems that frustrate HOAs, homeowners, and renters.

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