Tuesday, June 08, 2010

I always feel like somebody's watching me

It looks like Austin will become the next city to waste money on expensive anti-crime cameras that will never live up to the crime-reduction promises made to secure them. Reported KXAN-TV:
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:


R. Shackleford said...

Nobody ever learns anything from anybody in the le world. It's just depressing.

Jim B said...

The KXAN piece said they'll be using (mostly) federal grant money. Spend it or lose it? Maybe that's why.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yeah, but who put a gun to their head to ASK for it for a federal grant for that purpose?

Unknown said...

A few years back, the county I lived in received several million dollars in federal grant money that was put towards the communications infrastructure for law enforcment and emergency personnel.

It seems as though such a move or one that would actually reduce crime would make more sense in this case. Of course, as Shackleford says, the LE world routinely fails to learn from one another.

Anonymous said...

San Antonio set up a few of these cameras downtown also. If I remember correctly, they had so many glitches with the system that it proved ineffective. The cameras are still up and apparently there are eyes watching, but I think the jury is still out on their effectiveness. Seems to me a better solution would be to put more feet on the ground in high-crime areas rather than relying on cameras and dispatching officers from miles away.

Anonymous said...

"Any images that do not capture a crime will be automatically deleted after 10 days."

Umm, Yeah, riiiiight...

Two things to remember. Cops are NOT your friends, and politicians only lie when their mouths are open.

Scott in South Austin said...

Maybe they can install a camera at 1111 Congress Avenue so DPS can watch for any arsonists who may want to attack the Governor's Mansion. Oh wait, we already did that and it worked out so well.

Unknown said...

"Cops are NOT your friends..."

Funny 1:32, I doubt you'll be saying such a thing when you actually need one to come to your assistance.

OTOH, you're dead-on about politicians.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but who put a gun to their head to ASK for it for a federal grant for that purpose?

Nobody does. Maybe your anger should be directed at the federal government for providing the money in the first place and who also set the guidelines for its spending.

If the government would tighten down on the guidelines then the abuse would stop.

And federal dollars don't just end up in law enforcment hands, school districts get it to.

How about educators going to Las Vegas from one Texas ISD using federal stimulus dollars to the tune of $85,000; purportedly for professional development?

Or another one going to Colorado for the same.

If yopu don't like it, tell the federal government to quit giving out checks it can afford to cash.

Anonymous said...

The city of McAllen is installing cameras around town. The chief of police said something along the line the cameras will not be monitored by anyone but will be reviewed once a crime has occurred to look for clues.


Anonymous said...

Cops may not be your friends, but they are not your enemy.

BHorton2 said...

The point of this post -- that cameras are typically a colossal misuse of money and manpower -- is well-taken. However, it lacks punch because it does not provide an persuasively attractive alternate strategy or strategies. Cameras gained favor as an alternative to more and more manpower. I strongly sustpect that when and only when an equally "simple" and compelling alternative to cameras and monitoring them is proposed will their popularity fade.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Just to have said it, BHorton2, this blog has frequently suggested alternative means for boosting manpower that would cost nothing and actually expand police coverage instead of reduce it (as happens when officers are taken off the street to watch cameras).

Anonymous said...

Politicians should have to wear body cams that can be monitored 24 hours a day by the public via the internet. That would make for some entertainment. What would you call it?

Anonymous said...

Spare me the private public issue, how is it working for Joran Vandersloot this morning?

Mr. Anxiety said...

This slow painful decline is infuriating.

Just go ahead and put a camera inside my house, take my guns, put a 10mph governor and a GPS tracker on my car, and jack up my taxes to 90%.

Get it over with already.

Anonymous said...

As I read this post I kept thinking, where are the citizen's groups? The media, and blogs, bring up the issues, we get enraged and then it's on to the next thing. More people need to do something about a cause (cameras to catch bad guys! is one cause). I'm serious, people need to get involved, fight, stay in it for the long haul, try to change a bad idea, it's not going to happen otherwise (until we start getting public servants serving the public again). More people need to get involved instead of just complaining.

I do appreciate being informed, but you get my point...

Federal grants? It's not free, it's taxpayer money.

Anonymous said...

We don't like de evidence!

Anonymous said...

It's just a matter of time before cameras are in bathroom stalls.Then the whole can watch you take a crap,The envoirmentalist
can comment on how much paper you use the FbI can tell you how suspicious you look when you pull your pants down and when your passing fecies.It's just a matter of time.

Anonymous said...

To those saying that Cops are your friends, and how if you need one you'll want one.

First, Cops are NOT your friends. They are there to find guilt in ANY situation, so to the 'not your enemy' comment.. WRONG! Numerous false arrests are shown, proven every year that one cannot take any other conclusion that cops are there solely to violate your civil rights, period. As far as needing one if I have something occur to me. The police have nothing at their instant disposal that I cannot retrieve from my closet, beside table, or 10 years army experience in a combat arms MOS;
plus I would better trust the lives of my family or friends with my aim and trigger squeeze than some ego-driven dude that needs anger management classes.

Anonymous said...


Your generalizations are way over the top. You claim to know every cops and their motives.

Let me put in a context you can understand. It's like saying every soldier is a rapist baby killer, since as you put it because some have done it, you must conclude that all do.

Just because some have, doesn't mean all do.

Anonymous said...

Cops are just like every other entity in society. There are winner's and loser's.Problem is,There is a new crop of cops out there.The older ones Admit that there are New lot of new shaved head's out there that really don't understand there job and are qiuck to anger and fly off the handle.