Surveillance Cameras: Feel-good window-dressing?

Steve Chapman, in his latest Reason column, cites studies (unfortunatly, with no links) that show no correlation between crime reduction and video surveillance.

There are some famous examples where they have helped identify criminals—as in the July 21, 2005, subway bombing attempt in London, when video footage quickly led police to four conspirators. But a few cases, or even a few dozen, don’t prove much.

A more complete assessment indicates that when it comes to preventing and solving crimes, the cameras are about as useful as a pet rock. Britain has 4 million of them, but a 2005 report by the British government found little evidence to justify the effort. Video surveillance, it said, “produced no overall effect” on crime.

In San Francisco, cameras significantly reduced property crime while having no effect on violent crime, drug dealing, prostitution, or vandalism. So take comfort: When a mugger knocks you over the head, he won’t steal your hubcaps.

But if cameras generally don’t do much to prevent crime, surely they help collar the criminals they fail to deter? Not very often. A review by the London police department calculated, “For every 1,000 cameras in London, less than one crime is solved per year.” Average cost for cracking a case: $30,000.

He then goes on to report just some of the dismal results of video surveillance when it comes to capturing perps.

  • Chicago – 10,000 cameras, 4,000 arrests attributed since 2006 = 1 in 200 arrests
  • San Francisco – In three years, 6 crimes solved

And yet, Chapman notes, the zeal for video surveillance goes on unabated.  Privacy issues aside (and I’ve got a huge bone to pick about my privacy being invaded), in these days of devasted local budgets, when school districts, police forces, fire departments, etc, are laying people off, isn’t it time to take a cold hard look at whether or not what we are spending our money on actually works?

Chapman didn’t provide any links, but you know me, “show me” is my middle name so, keep reading.

San Francisco

March 21, 2008, SF Chronicle: Crime cameras not capturing many crimes

San Francisco’s 68 controversial anti-crime cameras haven’t deterred criminals from committing assaults, sex offenses or robberies – and they’ve only moved homicides down the block, according to a new report from UC Berkeley.

Researchers found that nonviolent thefts dropped by 22 percent within 100 feet of the cameras, but the devices had no effect on burglaries or car theft. And they’ve had no effect on violent crime.

Mayor Gavin Newsom called the report “conclusively inconclusive” on Thursday but said he still wants to install more cameras around the city because they make residents feel safer.

Got that? As long as citizen “feel” safer, it’s all good. Matters not if they actualy “make” them safer.

August 17, 2007, SF Chronicle, S.F. housing project crime cameras are a bust

THE CITY of San Francisco installed its first surveillance cameras more than two years ago. The San Francisco Housing Authority began installing its cameras last October. But San Francisco’s crime rates continue to rise, and crimes continue to go unsolved at startling rates.

This study (pdf) by the ACLU of Northern California discusses the privacy issues involved in 24/7 government monitoring of public places and then goes on to demolish the tripple myths that cameras reduce crime, deter crime, and make citizens feel safer. Citing several British studies the report notes, no discernable reduction in the rate of crime:

In Great Britain, where camera systems have been in place for close to a decade, criminologists have conducted a number of studies to review their actual impact. A 1999 study by the Scottish Central Research Unit evaluated crime statistics before and after the installation of surveillance cameras in Glasgow, Scotland. There, researchers found reductions in crime “no more significant than those in control areas without the camera locations.” 

A broader study by the British Home Office in 2002 looked at the cameras’ effects on crime in 18 different jurisdictions. The survey found reductions in vehicle crimes in certain areas—particularly parking garages—but found no significant impact on violent crime: “In the city centre and public housing setting, there was evidence that CCT V led to a negligible reduction in crime of about 2 percent in the experimental areas compared with the control areas.” Yet these are the very areas where many jurisdictions (such as San Francisco and Los Angeles) are deploying cameras.

The most recent comprehensive study, by Martin Gill and Angela Spriggs of the University of Leicester in England, evaluated 13 systems in Great Britain and reached similar findings. Although the British government spent millions of dollars on the systems, these have not had a significant impact on crime. In some areas crime increased and in others it decreased. In comparison with control areas, and taking into account general variations in the crime rate, the changes were insignificant.

Nor did anyone feel safer:

In the Glasgow study, researchers found that installing cameras did not make people more comfortable venturing into high-crime areas. The Gill and Spriggs study, in fact, demonstrated the opposite . . .

Doesn’t deter the criminals either:

The failure of cameras to reduce crime (or fear of crime) is also reflected in how offenders view video surveillance. Two studies conducted in the United States in 1985 by the Athena Research Corporation surveyed 181 armed robbers in prisons in New Jersey, Texas, and Illinois, and an additional 310 armed robbers in 20 state prisons in Maryland, Texas, and Washington. The researchers asked about offender planning, methods, and motives, seeking to determine what means were most effective in deterring crime.

In both surveys, camera systems and video recording finished in the bottom three in significance behind several other factors including an active police patrol, number of clerks, and number of customers. According to the study, “the robbers say cameras and videos aren’t effective and don’t keep them from robbing. We know that is true because people rob and kill in front of cameras. One of the reasons they give is that they know that no one is watching at the time, and also they’re not worried about being recognized because they can just wear a disguise or get away anyway.”

A third offender survey, conducted in Great Britain in 2003, reached similar conclusions.

Just think about the foiled Times Square bombing. It was an alert street vendor who first alerted police to the danger. Quick action on part of the police force prevented the bomb from going off. Good old-fashioned police work led to an arrest within 54 hours. What did video do? Took pictures of the SUV heading for the crime scene (no view of the driver, however) and, and I knew this was ridiculous the moment I first saw it, captured video of a guy stopping in the middle of the sidewalk and removing his sweatshirt. He became a person of interest because (gasp!) he had the audacity to look over his shoulder a couple of times.

The no-fly list is fairly modern and the Times Square cameras are more or less recent additions, but it seems it was mostly old-fashioned but hurried police work combined with a sharp-eyed citizenry that brought the bomb plot to a close.

Video surveillance in a store is one thing. You can focus it on the area most likely to be the scene of a crime, but even then often the video is so grainy as to be nearly useless (we’ve all seen the freeze frame photos on the nightly news).  But wide angle shots of city streets? What do they do? Make us “feel” safer, or so says Gavin Newsom.

I suspect that this is really sticking in my craw more this morning because of a video I watched yesterday involving a SWAT team busting into a family home in the middle of the night over a marijuana misdemeanor arrest.  The video, linked at Tennessee Guerilla Woman,  is shocking and sickening and left me shaking in rage. What happened in that house, and in houses all over the country, is the natural consequence of taking a public health issue (drug abuse), and turning it into a war.

A war, mind you, we have been “fighting” for thirty-plus years.

The police state has become just too much.

3 thoughts on “Surveillance Cameras: Feel-good window-dressing?

  1. Got that? As long as citizen “feel” safer, it’s all good. Matters not if they actualy “make” them safer.

    I work in architecture and trust me it’s really just called the “illusion of safety” when they put in all those cameras, lights, security guard desks, etc. No one will ever say that anything makes one safer – it just gives one the illusion they are safer. It’s a distinction for sure…one that covers your ass, but nothing else.


  2. Surveillance cameras always make me want to stick my tongue out, stick my thumbs in my ears and wiggle my fingers. Or blatantly adjust my underwear, or any of another harmless but tacky gestures.

    Guess I still have a generous portion of adolescent in my psyche.


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