Thursday, January 24, 2008

Does camera surveillance in public areas reduce crime? New Austin police chief thinks so

So which is it: Is Dallas one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country with robberies of businesses on the rise, as the Dallas New tells us ("Banks continue to cope with spate of robberies: 2007 total falls just below record, business breakins rise 10%," Jan. 9), or have surveillance cameras miraculously reduced crime in Dallas' business district by 28% in their first year, as the Downtown Dallas Association told the Austin Statesman this week ("Acevedo wants to put police cameras in key areas," Jan. 24)?

I'm betting the Dallas News' sources are a better reflection of the real overall crime rate. Whaddya think? (There's a vigorous debate on the subject of surveillance cameras already occurring, btw, on the Statesman's blog.)

Even if crime has decreased that much, I personally doubt surveillance cameras had much to do with it. The best longitudinal camera studies say they do little or nothing to reduce crime when used for general public surveillance, as Acevedo proposes, and are more frequently used for leering at attractive women on the street than preventing crime. (When used on specific, high-value assets like car parks, and when they're monitored, they're more useful, but not just out in the street. See prior Grits coverage of a landmark study by the British Home Office finding little crime reduction from camera surveillance.)

I've argued previously that instead of "multiplying" officers' ability to monitor crime, even when they "work," surveillance cameras usurp police management decisions by over-allocating scarce resources to monitored areas.

While cameras in public spaces do little to reduce crime, they open up easy avenues for abuse. As I've written previously:
Great Britain has become the most surveilled country in the world, largely in response to IRA terrorism. Dr Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong of the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hull University, UK, authored a study of the British experience called The Unforgiving Eye: CCTV Surveillance in Public Spaces, in which they found:
  • 40% of people were targeted for "no obvious reason", mainly "on the basis of belonging to a particular or subcultural group."
  • "Black people were between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population." Thirty percent of targeted surveillances on black people were protracted, lasting 9 minutes or more, compared with just 10% on white people.
  • Those deemed to be "out of time and out of place" with the commercial image of city centre streets were subjected to prolonged surveillance. "Thus drunks, beggars, the homeless, street traders were all subject to intense surveillance".
  • One out of ten women were targeted for “voyeuristic” reasons by the male camera operators.
  • "Finally, anyone who directly challenged, by gesture or deed, the right of the cameras to monitor them was especially subject to targeting.
There's 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, or a six cent paintball pellet. So it's very easy to thwart the cameras, but whenever a crime occurs, officers have to watch hours and hours of video, usually with little benefit to the case. 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 "world-weary" London cop/blogger who wrote 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.

RELATED: Pink Dome has some questions for the Chief that can't be answered with more government camera surveillance.


Unknown said...

I lived in London for almost 2 years and while I can't quote statistics I can state that there is a high amount of nuisance crime in London. People ignore the cameras. There is nothing that someone watching a monitor from miles away can do to stop a crime.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a 6 cent paintball can put a camera out of commission, but freezing the paintball ahead of time means it can break the optics as well.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Re: Frozen paint balls.

I'm sure you could also hit one with one of those "wrist rocket" slingshots after a few tries.

I always liked the scene in the opening credits of "The Wire" where the young kid flings a rock with major league aim at the B&W camera through which the viewer is watching, resulting in resounding but silent thud and a massive crack across the lens.

I bet that's not far from reality, and that there's a lot of low-tech ways for the bad guys to take out a camera, if they're motivated.

Anonymous said...

What law enforcement is after when they advocate public surveillance cameras is an easy, relatively cheap way to prevent criminal acts. Or maybe they want an easy, relatively cheap way to identify persons who commit crimes. I'm not sure if it is one or the other, or both. In either case, law enforcement is going to be disappointed.

"Security" cameras are best, if they are good at all, for after-the-fact review and search for the identity of a perp. Douglas is correct; there is little that can be done to stop a crime in progress via a camera. And Grits is correct, disguise will foil the efficacy, if it even exits, of a camera for identifying a perp.

I suspect that initially, cameras have a "chilling effect" upon behavior, even in the 6th Street area of Austin, where Chief Acevedo wants to install them. But after awhile the intimidating effect wears off; the cameras just become part of the background clutter. And after too many drinks, the cameras become challenges, and possibly targets.

There are two terribly basic problems with law enforcement's enchantment with cameras. One has to do with law enforcement's innate desire to prevent crime. That this is not what law enforcment is set up to do, and is not what police can do in an open, non-police state society, doesn't seem to deter them. Law enforcement, and their enablers in the prosecutors' offices, just continue to seek out more repressive and intrusive ways to reach a goal which can be reached, if at all, only by the most repressive governmental initiatives against the governed.

The second has to do with the abuse by law enforcement of their lens-view of people. Grits has highlighted some of those abuses.

If Chief Acevedo gets his cameras, then so should the residents of Austin. What is needed is a kind of "transparency." If the cops get public surveillance cameras, then the citizenry should get transparency in the form of one or more computer cameras focused on the cops who are monitoring the public cameras. Streaming video of the cops watching the drunks on 6th Street should go out on the WWW. The sexist and racist comments and antics of the watching cops, if any, should be available to anyone who wants to watch them.

Anonymous said...

Precisely the point I was trying to make, Anonymous-san! Thank you for clarifying my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Since nobody else noted this: it makes it easier to convict stupid criminals. It's all about conviction rate and looking good before citizen taxpayers. Smart criminals can easily avoid them. It's just a matter of a "learning curve" to draw attention to cameras and locations. Then you either bypass these locations or disable cameras. Stupid desperate criminals who would benefit from the availability of family wage jobs - that would actually be in plentiful supply in a real free market society without all the mergers and reductions of competition for wage earners. Workers compete while government subsidizes and provides mandates for corporate profits.
Bottom line is that serious criminals easily escape and we get better and easier arrests on people who wouldn't be involved in crime in a true free market society.

Mr. Anxiety said...

I am strongly against these cameras.

While it is accepted that there is no expectation of privacy in a public space, there is a big difference between a person briefly glancing at you and a camera staring at you and recording video of you.
Maybe I'll try walking around 6th street following random people with a video camera and see if anyone has a problem with it ;-)

I recently saw a quote from someone (possibly even here on grits) that predicted that people would not only accept this kind of intrusive surveillance but that they would demand it... and it's clear from the Statesman blog that that is precisely what is happening.

Unfortunately, I think Wal-Mart and bad decisions in the name of security are two things that you just can't stop!

Anonymous said...

We have accepted video cameras on police cars because thy provide (unless the cop turns it off) a third version of the story. A fixed camera that records an arrest can provide evidence for the defense as well as the prosecution.

There are fake video cameras that are supposed to deter crime but I suspect they are about as effective as a scarecrow. My take on this is that the salespersons for this hardware are better than their products.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Anxiety, try following some cops around on 6th (or any other) Street, with a video camera, why don't you. Will be interesting to get their reactions.

Anonymous said...

Following the police around with video cameras and press cameras has been done. Videos of police arrests have also been shown at city council meetings.

The first time it happened they backed off thought about it for a minute and then continued as before. I am not aware of any changes in police practices as a consequence.