Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A cost-benefit nightmare: One crime solved per 1,000 surveillance cameras

I've argued many times before that surveillance cameras in public spaces provide little crime fighting bang for the buck, often citing Britain's example. Now out of the UK comes this news, via the BBC, showing how little crime fighting benefit that nation has seen from its massive investment in CCTV:
Only one crime was solved by each 1,000 CCTV cameras in London last year, a report into the city's surveillance network has claimed.

The internal police report found the million-plus cameras in London rarely help catch criminals.

In one month CCTV helped capture just eight out of 269 suspected robbers.

David Davis MP, the former shadow home secretary, said: "It should provoke a long overdue rethink on where the crime prevention budget is being spent."

The Metropolitan Police has been extraordinarily slow to act to deal with the ineffectiveness of CCTV

He added: "CCTV leads to massive expense and minimum effectiveness.

"It creates a huge intrusion on privacy, yet provides little or no improvement in security.
Austin, Dallas, Houston and other US cities investing in public video surveillance should take heed of this new report. Proponents of CCTV often admit that cameras don't reduce crime, but instead argue that they help solve them after the fact. But Britain's example shows that's not true, either. In that light, there's little sense in throwing good money after bad to follow the Brits' lead. In a tight budgetary environment, cities should shelve CCTV programs and shift resources toward priorities that measurably affect crime.


Anonymous said...

They've known for years that the British experiment was a bust. I'm not sure why people still are interested in CCTV (other than CCTV contractors).

Another boondoggle is Shot Spotter technology. Recording gunfire is about as useful as keeping track of local flatulence. Even if you had helicopter patrols it would take one especially moronic shooter to hang around for five minutes after he's done shot up someone or something.


Armand said...

Reminds me of the moonlight towers around Austin ... part of the justification for installing them over 100 years ago was a supposed reduction in crime.

Doktor Jon said...

"Proponents of CCTV often admit that cameras don't reduce crime, but instead argue that they help solve them after the fact. But Britain's example shows that's not true, either."

The arguments up to and including this internal report, are unfortunately not as straightforward as most people would like.

The automatic assumption is that both the technology and the techniques have been applied correctly, in which case the lamentable outcome would suggest to any reasonable person that CCTV doesn't work.

That said, on the basis that most informed observers have known for a very long time that trying to use CCTV simply as a proactive crime reduction tool, is never going to work on its own, we therefore need to better understand how to use it, and what it's good for.

Designing CCTV security systems to fulfil specific operational objectives would make them inherently more efficient and effective, than simply deploying hugely expensive cameras on the misguided principle of "lottery surveillance".

Where many countries (including the US) have looked towards the UK as a paragon of best practice, the obvious point is not to do as we do, otherwise you will undoubtedly be undone.
We haven't got it right, so please learn from our mistakes.

CCTV will only work effectively if the systems are designed. deployed and operated in a more intelligent and intuitive way.

Unfortunately, shovelling money into something that has thus far been incapable of doing what we want, is politically far more acceptable than spending a few bucks on getting it right.

Whenever video surveillance is eventually operated in a more 'holistic' and responsible way, it will undoubtedly demonstrate a significant benefit right across the Criminal Justice System, and in a wider context, society as a whole.

Until that time .... we can but live in hope!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Doktor Jon, the "correct" way to apply CCTV is to focus it on specific, high-value targets the way it's used in the private sector. The only public spaces where it's consistently been shown they affect crime are car parks. (And of course even then they only help if the camera feeds are monitored.) Beyond those uses, I think public safety money needs to be invested elsewhere.

Doktor Jon said...

Hi Grits,

Your interpretation of "correct" is based on the simple concept of CCTV System Profiling, where the most appropriate use of technology and techniques is applied to address specific defined risks.

That aside, the fundamental problem with Public Space Surveillance (PSS) as universally deployed here in the UK, is that it is not configured to provide maximum benefits in terms of passive evidential recording.

As such it's use as an investigative tool where serious organised crime or terrorism related incidents are involved, is inevitably compromised.

In general, where systems perform at a low or essentially ineffectual level, then the concept of 'Deterrence through Detection' (DtD) is incapable of driving down criminality, and the whole exercise inevitably becomes an expensive waste of technology.

Getting it right shouldn't really be that difficult, but unfortunately on this side of the pond, it isn't really politically expedient.