Thursday, December 16, 2010

Public surveillance cameras in Austin a PR-driven boondoggle

The Austin City Council today appears likely to approve new police surveillance cameras downtown supposedly to prevent crime, though there's no empirical evidence cameras in public places will achieve that goal. Reports KVUE-TV:
The Austin City Council will vote on a measure Thursday that would add 23 surveillance cameras in downtown Austin.

Austin police would place the cameras in "hot spots" in downtown. Police will consider crime data, expected crowds, and community requests to determine the exact locations.
KVUE adds that "privacy advocates say the cameras are a bad idea. Texans for Accountable Government say Austin is turning into a surveillance state." But to me, privacy concerns aren't nearly as big an issue as the mere fiscal and managerial stupidity of the idea. News 8-Austin reports that "The cameras will cost around $600,000, but the Downtown Austin Alliance is offering to foot $250,000 of that bill." But even $350k isn't exactly a bargain, and cameras create ongoing costs for the city that the Downtown Austin Alliance won't pay for. After all, they serve no purpose at all unless the city pays for staff to watch them, and even then in most settings, cameras in public rarely prevent or solve crime.

Camera systems are incredibly staffing intensive from several perspectives. First, they can't stop crime unless somebody is watching monitors in real time and also has authority to immediately deploy officers based on what they see. So there are staffing costs for monitoring and also for the officers who will now be deployed more frequently at spots the cameras are located. (Essentially cameras usurp deployment decisions by police supervisors, resulting in an unplanned overallocation of the city's limited policing resources.

But there's another staffing aspect that camera proponents seldom publicly discuss: whenever a crime occurs, police must watch video footage (frequently many hours of it), usually with little benefit to the case. And while they're doing that, they are not investigating other crimes. A London cop/blogger 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." That's why cameras in public spaces arguably harm safety more than they preserve it: Proponents ignore the opportunity costs from diverting officers from their workaday duties.

Indeed, London is the most surveilled city in the world, with CCTV cameras covering virtually every public space in most of the city. But a meta-study by the British Home Office last year accumulating results from dozens of studies and years of research advised police that "The use of closed-circuit television in city and town centres and public housing estates does not have a significant effect on crime." That's not just true in Britain but everywhere the strategy has been used. As security guru Bruce Schneier wrote in a column for CNN earlier this year:
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.
I've railed against this idea in the past, but it's one of those areas where people's so-called "common sense" fails to anticipate all the on-the-ground realities of why these systems don't work - even when the issue has been researched six ways from Sunday, as this one has. So Austin PD will spend the next few years wasting money and manpower on this boondoggle, but it's much more a public relations ploy than an actual public safety initiative, and one that diverts police resources from more important crime fighting activities.

See related Grits posts:


Alan said...

Even when someone is monitoring a camera and dispatching officers, a street crime rarely takes more than a minute. Police hope for 8-minute response time to high priority calls. They won't catch a mugger or car burglar from a camera-based dispatch.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Exactly. That's why even though it sounds like a good idea on its face, in practice it just wastes everybody's time.

Anonymous said...

Oh, how you mislead! If someone murdered your wife, the camera would not prevent this tragedy. (You are right there.) But, it would record who committed the act. (That's the part you left out.) It seems you are always leaving something out. How else, I suppose, could you promote your one sided viewpoint.

Shadowguv said...

@Anonymous 10:15:

Yes, the idea is PD can go back and review the event, leading to an ID and prosecution. The point I take from Grits' post is that this rarely happens. It's just a feel good, PR stunt designed to make citizens feel like their LE agencies are doing something.

How about allocating those resources to the Detective bureaus who actually investigate and clear crimes? How's the solve rate today? Mediocre I think. That would be a better use of limited resources, in my opinion.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:15, you might have a point if cameras couldn't be easily defeated by high-tech means like hats, sunglasses, hoodies, etc., and if images were high-res enough to see details of faces. In practice, though, the video typically isn't useful for those purposes.

In Britain, where they are ubiquitous, cameras assist in solving, on average, one crime per year for every 1,000 surveillance cameras in use. Given how much they cost (in this case, $600K for 23 cameras, plus staffing expenses) that's a cost-benefit nightmare.

Anonymous said...

You're making the famous Michael Dukakis mistake. Trying to protect your pets even if it involved your wife.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:48, you're completely full of crap. You said at 10:15 that "If someone murdered your wife, the camera would not prevent this tragedy ... But, it would record who committed the act." My point is that in almost all cases that's simply false. Pointing out that one crime is solved per 1,000 active cameras is a far cry from saying I don't care if my wife is murdered. If she was, I'd want my tax dollars spent on investigative tactics that might actually catch her killer in the real world, as opposed to whatever fantasyland some anonymous coward/troll inhabits.

And btw, if you're going to run off at the mouth about somebody's wife, grow some balls and drop the anonymous BS.

Anonymous said...

Why not have the cops just look at the tape and see who the bastard was?

Paul UK said...

In some ways it has been found that CCTV drives up crime. For instance if some people have an altercation in the street, nothing too serious just some pushing and shoving and there is no police in the area, it will not be recorded. Now if a CCTV operator sees it it is recorded.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:59, you either didn't read what was written or you're just a troll. My money is on the latter.

The answer to your question, though, is that in almost all cases it's impossible to tell who did it from the tape. See above about cameras being "easily defeated by high-tech means like hats, sunglasses, hoodies, etc.."

To understand why your "common sense" opinion is simply wrong in practice, see this blog post from a London cop about difficulties of the kind of post facto identification you're talking about. He points out that "more often than not [footage] merely shows 'snap shots' of the incident concerned. Figures can be seen from a distance doing 'something'. This footage will show that some kind of offence has taken place. It is more than useless for the purposes of finding out who did it." As a result, "identification is rarely assisted by CCTV."

Is that clear enough or do I need to dumb it down to two-syllable words or less?

Anonymous said...

Seeing these guys on film gives the cops an unfair advantage.

TexasLeo said...


I many times find myself at odds with your perspectives, but in this case, you are right on the money. This is a huge waste of money and manpower. If they just want to spend tax dollars, Austin would be better served by putting beat cops in the high crime areas, like days of old.

Anonymous said...

A related article.