Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Why surveillance cameras don't reduce crime

Dennis Bailey at the Open Society Paradox calls me out on yesterday's Grits post about surveillance cameras, and offers up examples of surveillance "sucess stories." To me, the wisdom of proliferating security cameras should be evaluated based on the empirical results of a three-way tradeoff between security, liberty, and measurable, real-world effectiveness. So I'm happy to see his set of success stories. Taken together, the two posts supply readers with a pretty good range of cases documenting both risks and benefits, pros and cons of camera surveillance.

Some of his examples are private surveillance, not government, which is a different matter, though when enacted on a large scale, it too deserves scrutiny. I don't know anybody, though, who thinks there shouldn't be a camera behind the counter at the convenience store. Still, even in his other examples, serious crimes were committed in the cameras' presence, though perhaps it was easier to prosecute crooks (unless, I suppose, they operated at night or wore a hat).

Earlier I'd cited longitudinal research showing widespread use surveillance cameras doesn't reduce crime. They've been used long enough in Britain now to allow extensive analysis of the resulting crime data.

So Dennis' post got me wondering why, despite its internal logical consistency, the idea of camera surveillance reducing crime never played out that way in the real world in Britain where it's much more widespread (except in a few specific places like parking facilities).

A hypothesis:

1. Human beings are creative and criminals actively try to get around or disable surveillance.

2. Police have limited resources.

3. If cameras are being monitored, police resources are being directed wherever the cameras are being focused. I'm not just talking about time spent by the video-monitor watchers, but where patrol units are sent to respond. By definition, that excludes every other portion of the world where they aren't looking, which is inevitably SOMEWHERE (or if cameras are everywhere, then you get lapses like in the Atlanta case), so because of (1) above, criminals are inevitably able to adjust to the new environment.

For example, take a look at this typical quote from
one of Dennis' examples from a Washington state police chief: "I can have one person watch 11 monitors, whereas I would have to have 11 officers patrolling to see the same things." But that's not true, because what that officer is doing is DIRECTING the other officers, who must respond if the first one sees anything. More to the point, over time officers will be more likely to be directed there, so cameras represent an unplanned overallocation of the state's limited policing resources.

If that's true, then the reason camera surveillance doesn't reduce crime might be that the theory of cameras as a crime preventive fundamentally misunderstands both crime, and the way cameras usurp human police management decisions by overallocating scarce officer resources. If I'm right, in the end, at best, cameras target only the most stupid criminals, for a while.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

For a while, and also under very particular, now well-proven circumstances -- again, we now have empirical data as to where they work and where they don't As a general principle, though, and as a long-term crime reduction strategy, I think camera systems are expensive and misguided.

BTW, you probably don't care whether you're assaulted by a smart or dumb criminal - that's the point! If the total number of assaults don't go down over time, what have you gained?

Anonymous said...

And of course everyone there, including you, just stood around and watched the bloody show unfold, eh? We expect cameras and more cops to make up for the fearful apathetic society we live in. Then, you get to go home, tell all your friends about the beating you observed and feel you're getting your very own ten minutes of fame. If you'd all get in there together and STOP criminals, crime would actually take a downturn.

Let me know when you get up the nerve to be real citizens. I want to watch. Anonymously, of course!

Anonymous said...

i dont get it

Anonymous said...

And if you do get involved trying to stop a fight, then you too can be arrested. You 'appear' to be involved in the fight and it would take some evidence to prove otherwise... hopefully the cameras might help here... but who knows?

It still isn't a substitute for properly trained officers on the beat.

Anonymous said...

A Camera cant' reduce crime until human being are conscious about crimes

Anonymous said...

There is always the human factor that can allow people to commit crimes just because of the failures of the security guards.

Anonymous said...

They don't work well here because people destroy them so government never replaces those cameras and security cannot be accomplished.

Hidden Cameras said...

Well the key is to use hidden cameras. For example a bird house outdoors or something similar. They can't disable what they don't see or suspect.

Security Cameras said...

Yes, in an ideal world, we need human resources like the cops to police all areas but that's not very practical. It requires a lot of manpower and financial resources. So the only thing left is using security cameras...also security cameras might not help much in intervening a fight but they will definitely help if someone is gravely injured from the fight or god forbid even killed! The cameras are definitely useful to find the perpetrator and figure our the sequence of events.

security cameras said...

You are right security cameras do not reduce crime. We need human resources to do that but it can catch crime.

Unknown said...

I've always been the type of person to laugh at commercial security, even in Albuquerque. I always look at the security cameras with a smile on my face. I've heard nobody even watches though.

Yizheng LI said...

ban weapon is a big deal to stop the crime, Americans always against ban gun because they think keep weapon can help them defend themselves, but actually criminal can get weapon easily if everyone has the weapon. Criminal can buy a gun from shop like buy a piece of cake, and no one knows the man is a criminal before he uses the gun, moreover, citizens cannot bring the gun with them every day, but criminals could. So the weapon brings more damage than benefits.
For instance, in December 14, 2012, a school shooting happened in Sandy Hook Elementary School; the criminal, Adam Lanza, killed 20 first-grade children and four teachers by rifle, then he killed himself by his handgun. I believe most of teachers in this school have guns, but they won’t bring it to school everyday, which means their guns can be only used for hunting or fun, not protect themselves, but criminals do the the crime and bring the gun whenever they want, it’s hard for citizens to prepare and ready for these sudden crime. Even though citizens can bring guns with them everyday, but do they have courage to fire back or use the gun point someone? I think the answer would be no, because we are living in a real world, not in movie.