The Austin Police Department laid out a plan for more than two dozen public safety cameras to be put up in two high-crime areas of the city.
The Austin Public Safety Commission heard the plan at their meeting Monday night and voiced little opposition. The APD plans to install the majority of the 26 cameras in the Downtown area and some at Rundberg Lane and I-35.
"One of the things that we know is that public safety cameras can actually reduce crime so they're very important to us," said Assistant Police Chief David Carter.
Opponents of the cameras argue they invade privacy and do little to deter crime and instead displace it.
"Displacement of crime is not the ideal goal here- what we really want to try and do is solve and prevent crime," said Carter.
The department announced that part of their plan includes an accountability committee and training officers to watch the videos. Any images that do not capture a crime will be automatically deleted after 10 days.
I despise public surveillance cameras at least as much because they're a colossal waste of money and police manpower as for the civil liberties concerns. It's just a dumb, simplistic way to spend valuable police time, both diverting the officer who's watching the video from other duties and overallocating resources by deferring supervisory decisions to camera operators. It's one of those "common sense" ideas that sounds like it ought to work but which has been repeatedly tested in the field and proven ineffective. As security theorist Bruce Schneier wrote recently in a recent column for CNN:
Pervasive security cameras don't substantially reduce crime. This fact has been demonstrated repeatedly: in San Francisco public housing, in a New York apartment complex, in Philadelphia, in Washington, DC, in study after study in both the U.S. and the U.K. Nor are they instrumental in solving many crimes after the fact.
There are exceptions, of course, and proponents of cameras can always cherry-pick examples to bolster their argument. These success stories are what convince us; our brains are wired to respond more strongly to anecdotes than to data. But the data is clear: CCTV cameras have minimal value in the fight against crime.
The U.K. and particularly London are the most surveiled society in the world, but after years of spending on CCTV cameras, to the point where it's been claimed Londoners cannot walk outdoors in most parts of town without a camera catching them, the cost-benefit results have been devastatingly poor over time.
Last year the British Home Office distributed research-derived guidance to local police based on years of data concluding that cameras failed to reduce crime when used generally in "city centres" or in public housing projects, with one notable exception: Cameras do reduce crime when directed at parking lots and coupled with extra staffing and sufficient lighting. But otherwise generalized public surveillance by the law enforcement isn't particularly useful, especially when one considers the opportunity costs.
Which brings us to another problem with camera surveillance for crime fighting purposes that's seldom discussed. Cameras can be defeated with inexpensive, low-tech means like sunglasses, hats, hoods, minimal disguises, spray-paint, or a six-cent paintball pellet. So it's easy to thwart cameras, but whenever a crime occurs, police must watch video (frequently hours of it), usually with little benefit to the case. And while they're doing that, they are not investigating other crimes.
I borrowed that last argument about cops wasting their time watching video from a "world-weary" London cop/blogger who complained in 2006 that "CCTV viewing occupies a disproportionate amount of police time with very little tangible result. This fact is well known to street criminals." When both cops and the street criminals know cameras don't actually combat crime, the only reason left to favor cameras is to fool the public into thinking you're doing something as a PR stunt. But when a public relations ploy comes to divert scarce police resources on a significant scale, it actually harms public safety overall.
This is sort of like getting in on the end of a fad after all the hipness and cool is gone and all that's left is a hollow, commercialized shell aimed at selling a product. Nobody really benefits from this scheme except whoever's selling the city the cameras.
(Headline with apologies to Rockwell and the late Michael Jackson.)
See related Grits posts:
- On the limits of surveillance cameras as crime reduction
- A cost-benefit nightmare: One crime solved per 1,000 surveillance cameras
- UK to police: Cameras in public places don't reduce crime
- Cameras, crime reduction and cost
- Dallas police cameras focused on petty crime, public relations
- CCTV proponents should abandon claim that surveillance cameras reduce crime
- Schneier: Now's the time to limit CCTV waste and abuse
- Surveillance cameras and crime
- Best way to terminate surveillance society is through cost-benefit analysis
- Does camera surveillance in public areas reduce crime? Austin chief think so
- Over the Top: Houston chief wants cameras in apartments, private homes
- Cameras wrong response to London bombings
- Dallas cops share surveillance tapes with private businesses
- Why surveillance cameras don't reduce crime
- Safer with camera surveillance or just more exposed?
- Britain: Surveillance cameras 'do not stop crime'
- Big Brother cashes in: Biometrics industry sees profit growth in surveillance camera proliferation