Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Blog

Surprising allies think cameras at late night establishments may happen

Guest Grand Rapids Legal News article by Roger Rapoport, reprinted with permission (All Rights Reserved): Legal News Editor’s Note: Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson, the next president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, received his law degree with honors from Thomas M. Cooley Law School and went immediately into his career as a prosecutor in Muskegon County.

A strong leader in the community, Hilson is a member of Muskegon Rotary and of Mediation and Restorative Services, president of the Child Abuse Council of Muskegon County, vice-chair of the award-winning Drug Free Coalition of Muskegon, and president of the Boys and Girls Club of Muskegon, among many other positions. Hilson was the 2013-14 president of the Muskegon County Bar Association, and was appointed by Governor Snyder to represent all Michigan County Prosecutors on the Criminal Justice Policy Commission. He will assume the presidency of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association in August, succeeding Iron County Prosecutor Melissa Powell.)

Visit England and you’ll discover more than 300 cameras could be recording your whereabouts on any given day. You won’t have that problem here in Michigan, where far too many late night establishments don’t have any cameras on the premises.

Legislative attempts to begin addressing this problem have failed over the past five years. This dismays Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson who believes there are far too many bars, restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores, clubs and other businesses open into the wee hours that do not provide this needed security for their employees and customers.

Hilson, president-elect of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, believes late night establishments without video surveillance can be a magnet for career criminals. Among such criminals is Jeffrey Willis, a former school janitor who got his kicks using special vision cameras to “undress” young women recorded at numerous swim meets.

Traveling county byways with his personal rape kit and laser sight equipped Walther P 22, he targeted a Norton Shores Exxon Station lacking any video surveillance. Late on the night of April 26, 2013, Willis abducted 25-year-old mother Jessica Heeringa. Her body has never
been found.

Had cameras been in place at the gas station near U.S. 31, says Prosecutor Hilson, it’s likely she would have never been targeted in the first place.
“We believe Willis picked this victim in large part because he believed he would not get caught and could continue leading a double life that would allow him to go on killing more women.”

In December 2013, while police detectives struggled to break the case, Rep. Marcia Hovey Wright (D-Muskegon) and Collene Lamonte (D-Montague) introduced the Jessica Heeringa Act requiring gas stations and convenience stores to install cameras or make sure that at least two employees were on duty after 11 p.m.

The legislation quickly drew the opposition of the Michigan Petroleum Association and the Michigan Association of Convenience Stores represented during the pendency of the bill by Association President Mark Griffin.

Griffin contended that businesses can effectively devise their own approach to protect staff and customers without government mandates. He maintained in a Michigan Public Radio interview that cameras and the presence of two workers do not deter crime.

While the Jessica Heeringa Act never made it out of committee, Willis found his second victim, 38-year-old Rebekah Bletsch, a mother and wife. On June 29, 2014, she was shot and left to die on a rural roadway in Dalton Township half a mile from her home. There were no witnesses, very little evidence found at the crime scene and many unanswerable questions.

Willis, who was sentenced to life in both cases this spring, is no longer a threat. Could a Heeringa-style crime happen at another late night establishment lacking video surveillance? Hilson, who successfully prosecuted both the Heeringa and Bletsch murder cases against Willis, thinks so.

“The problem,” says Hilson, “is that to prevent these crimes of opportunity we need state legislation to make cameras mandatory in late-night establishments.”

His view is shared by Hovey Wright and Lamonte.

“Collene and I believe that protecting the safety of vulnerable people is well worth the cost of security cameras,” says Hovey Wright.

Now five years after Willis abducted Heeringa, it’s clear that Michigan’s legislature could find a path to closing the state’s gap on video surveillance at gas stations, convenience stores, bars, restaurants and other public establishments open late.

Mark Griffin opposed the Jessica Heeringa Act because he believed it was a mistake to single out his association’s members. In a magazine interview this week he said:

“As it turns out most of our members do have camera systems. The concept of making sure that all late night establishments in the state, including bars and restaurants, have video cameras, makes sense. We would be supportive of new legislation if it embraced all businesses, not just one or two categories.”

Griffin’s thinking has been influenced by a trip to England where he saw firsthand how a comprehensive video surveillance system effectively caught criminals, often within hours.

“Part of their success was cameras at all businesses. It was also notable that cameras at major intersections also made a difference.”

Hilson, who was able to convict Willis with the help of video coverage of the murderer’s silver minivan recorded at a nearby business, agrees.

“We would be delighted to work with the Michigan Petroleum Association and the Michigan Association of Convenience Stores and any other stakeholder on a responsive and responsible fix to help deter criminals from attacking employees like Jessica and to increase the protection of the business.”

From Griffin’s perspective, legislation that systematically addresses this ongoing challenge makes sense:

“We’re probably not going to get to a place like they have in London where there are 500,000 CCTV cameras helping police quickly grab video of a subway bomber. Even so, there is no question that cameras systematically in place at businesses serving customers at night would assist police after crimes are committed.

Hilson shares this point of view: “What we learned from the Heeringa and Bletsch cases is that the lack of video surveillance makes it difficult for first responders to quickly get a jump on a crime in progress. Instead of an investigation stretching out for years, we have the potential of capturing the criminal before he does harm.

“Rebekah Bletsch would be alive today if the cameras now in place all over the Norton Shores Exxon station had been there in 2013. What I worry about is the possibility that a lack of cameras at late night establishments may be contributing to more crimes. From a cost point of view state and local police can reduce expenses and make communities safer.”

While the petroleum and convenience store association’s Mark Griffin is interested in new legislation, he emphasizes that it has to be written fairly.

“We don’t think it’s right to just pick on the corner gas station. Anyone who is open late has some exposure, especially when you add in the
possibility of employee theft and drive-offs by customer who skip paying. A comprehensive approach would be more effective. I would definitely talk to my members about it. Some would have concerns. Nonetheless with the cost of surveillance going down, it’s good to consider this kind of legislation. It would be good to couple this kind of bill with cameras at key intersections.”

Hilson agrees. “Anything we can do across the state to prevent these crimes will be an immediate benefit,” he says.

Roger Rapoport is the Muskegon-based author of Hillsdale and Citizen Moore and the producer of Waterwalk, Pilot Error and forthcoming Coming Up For Air, as well as a former national journalist writing for various newspapers and such magazines as Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and Playboy. He can be reached at rogerdrapoport@me.com.

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