An still image captured from video footage shows three masked people fleeing a Rolex specialty store in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district in May 2023. (Courtesy of an eyewitness)(Kyodo)

A recent robbery at a high-end watch store on a busy street in central Tokyo has led authorities to warn bystanders against recording videos of ongoing crimes for their own safety, despite the footage often being valuable to police investigations.

On May 8, a Rolex specialty store in Tokyo's upscale Ginza shopping district was entered by teens who allegedly snatched more than 70 wristwatches worth some 300 million yen ($2.2 million), according to police.

The brazen robbery of the store was recorded by bystanders, with the footage of the masked individuals and their getaway van shown widely on television news programs.

"We would not recommend an individual record video when there is danger, such when a person with a knife is at the scene," said a senior official of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department's Communications Command Headquarters, which responds to emergency calls from the public.

"We are thankful for the courageous acts (of filming the crime scene) but the preservation of life is the most important thing," the official added.

The lack of available security camera footage from the Rolex store meant, on this occasion, the videos shot by bystanders proved valuable to police.

One shot by a male eyewitness showed the white masks worn by the men while they ransacked the store, and caught the number plate of their van as it sped away.

"When there was no footage from the store's security camera, (the video) revealed the situation at the time and helped our investigations," an investigative source said.

Police were able to pursue the fleeing minivan to apprehend the teenagers from Yokohama, near Tokyo, for alleged trespassing in an apartment building nearby. The four were later served fresh arrest warrants for their alleged involvement in the robbery at the store, named Quark Ginza 888.

Videos shot by members of the public also played a role in identifying suspects who overturned a small truck in Tokyo's Shibuya district in October 2018. In that case, a group of Halloween revelers was caught on camera flipping the truck over, with the incident shared widely on social media, and 10 men were eventually referred to prosecutors on various charges.

This April, Japanese police launched a system where citizens can report a situation on the spot by sending videos or photos from their devices to a dedicated web portal.

But despite authorities establishing this crime-reporting system, there is concern it could lead to dangerous situations.

Experts and the police stress that people who become absorbed in videoing a crime scene are putting themselves at risk as they could become a target of an attack themselves.

Yutaka Hirata, a professor specializing in police administration at Okayama University of Science, said an offender could suddenly become angry at being filmed and attack or take hostage the person taking the video.

For the burglary case at Ginza, "It was fortunate that there were no injuries but the incident is a wake-up call" about the dangers of these types of crimes, Hirata said.

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