Thursday, February 16, 2006

Over the top: Houston chief wants cameras in apartments, private homes

Houston police chief Harol Hurtt has a delusion -- several, actually, but the one I'm referencing at the moment is his notion that installing surveillance cameras will help Houstonians feel safer and reduce crime. Hurtt not only wants to put cameras in public spaces downtown, he also wants to force new malls and apartment complexes to install camera systems with direct feeds to the police department as part of the building permit process, maybe even in private homes.

As for privacy,
Hurtt told reporters, "If you're not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?" Uh, because you respect the Constitution and personal liberty, maybe? The KGB used that same line in Communist Russia, one recalls, on their way to filling up a system of gulags.

Beyond privacy concerns there's a bigger problem: empirically cameras simply don't reduce crime. London, England today is the
most surveilled city in the world. You supposedly can no longer walk outside in London without your image being captured by police on CCTV, or closed circuit television, as the Brits refer to it. Those cameras were installed in reaction to IRA terrorism, and are as integrated into their day-to-day police practices as any city in the world. Their cops have invested a lot of capital, political and monetary, into promoting them.

Facts are facts, though, and when the British Home Office (that nation's top law enforcement agency) last year released a long-term study on the topic, it revealed that surveillance cameras
didn't reduce crime, confirming previous research. Reported the 2-24-05 London Evening Standard:
The findings [came] as a blow to the Home Office, which has trumpeted CCTV as a key crime-fighting weapon for the past 10 years.

The report's author, Professor Martin Gill of the University of Leicester, said: "For supporters these findings are disappointing. For the most part CCTV did not produce reductions in crime and did not make people feel safer."

The only one of the 14 schemes found to be a success was targeted at car parks, where it led to a significant drop in vehicle crime. Other schemes in city centres, residential areas and hospitals produced no clear benefits.

I know Hurtt probably doesn't read the British papers, and to be fair this is a fad among many in US law enforcement, but London's experience shows that, as a crime fighting tool, surveillance cameras are an expensive, fruitless boondoggle outside very narrow, well-defined circumstances. I've discussed before reasons why that might be true. Plus, as I told the Associated Press:
"Cameras can be defeated with very high tech means, like sunglasses and hats and disguises," Henson said, laughing. "So it is very easy to thwart the cameras, but if something happens, officers have to watch hours and hours and hours of video. And while they are doing that, they are not investigating crimes."
That last bit about cops wasting time watching video isn't just me talking. I borrowed the notion from a London cop/blogger who wrote in January 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 they 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.

While cameras may not make us safer, there's no question they make us
more exposed to possible privacy violations. Mayor White needs to shut down this bad idea before it gets off the ground. As I wrote earlier this morning, if Houston thinks they need more enforcement, the city should hire more cops - to quote a past Grits commenter, "There's no replacement for boots on the ground - none."

See also:
CCTV coverage from SpyBlog, and BlogHouston's discussion and followup.

UPDATE: Dallas PD wants more cameras, too, says DallasBlog.


Anonymous said...

And when is Houston police chief Harol Hurtt having cameras installed in his home?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

He should definitely be first!

Anonymous said...

Is it me, or is Texas not quite like the rest of the country?

Anonymous said...

The Chief unwittingly gave the reason for not spying with cameras in his question.

Since I'm not doing anything wrong, there's no reason to spy on me. The fact that he might or might not know that is his problem, not mine. There's that thing about probable cause BEFORE you can spy on people.

Anonymous said...

ed martin said:
"There's that thing about probable cause BEFORE you can spy on people."

Yeah but when the government is able to scare/convince the public into believing that cameras are needed for their safety, then the people willing give up their rights.

Anonymous said...

My goodness. Well, I guess it's inevitable.

I, for one, welcome my new Gestapo overlords.

(Man, you just gotta love Houston. Oh wait, no you don't.)

Anonymous said...

As a Brit and interested observer I should say that cameras have been very succsesful in removing crime, such as bag snatching gangs, from certain areas (notably around Soho in London). However, all it does is move the problem to an area out of view of the cameras.

It does nothing to stop random crime or the types of terrorist attacks as where visited on London last year. However, the legacy of the attackers such as the video footage of their dry runs and their fateful journey are a useful tool for those that wish to monitor our society still further.

The legacy of hours of video footage is highly instrumental in creating a climate in which the perception of crime far out wheighs its reality. The same could be said of the terrorist threat.

Anonymous said...

To the last anonymous: So you don't think that British Home Office study was accurate? It seemed to say otherwise, except for "car parks."

Anonymous said...

In reply to the above comment.

I was respondingto the article and not to the home office report.I was trying to point out that cameras CAN have a role in crime prevention. However, in my opinion they are no substitute for police on the beat and traditional policing methods.

In relation to terrorism they are clearly of no consequence when it comes to preventing attacks.

That said, they are being used in the probaganda drive as they are instrumental in builiding the impression that actions are constantly monitored and illegal acts are thus risky. However, this is unlikely to put-off the committed as is evident from the existing footage.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I think cameras increase security only when protecting narrowly defined, high-value assets, but not for generalized use in public spaces. You can watch something specifically - as Bruce Schneier points out, especially when its value is so high that it's financially worth backing cameras up with on-the-ground security - but even putting privacy aside, when you try to watch everything you wind up watching nothing.

Anonymous said...

$2000 prize for the first person to catch Hurtt on tape committing a crime

Anonymous said...

He should put cameras in The Palace Inn at 4115 Hwy6 North. That place promotes prostitution. The owners even give a special rate of $20 an hour to the prostitutes.

The Palace Inn has become an eye sore from the street because of the traffic entering in and out.

R. Shackleford said...

Yeah...nobody is putting a frigging camera in MY home. That is just right out of 1984. I'll burn it down and move to Brazil before I let that happen.