While wandering in an underground parking deck in a large city—because I had forgotten where I parked my car—I soon realized that I must be under camera surveillance.
An estimated 30 million surveillance cameras are in use in the United States. Even images of the recent miraculous water landing of a commercial airliner in the Hudson River were captured by at least two security cameras. Cameras are affixed at our borders to detect illegal immigrants, and placed in our airports, schools, and on our street corners.
A quick perusal of Google News reveals scores of stories recently where law enforcement utilized the surveillance tool to identify criminals and pursue prosecution. But that’s where the story gets muddled.
Questions are only now emerging after the widespread deployment of these cameras. A recent report by the University of California, Berkeley, comprehensively examined the performance of San Francisco’s surveillance camera program. It found no effect on deterrent or conviction rates for violent crime, but did report a significant deterrent effect on property crime near camera installations. The report states that crime rates remained the same; it was just displaced to other parts of the city that did not have the cameras. Similar studies and reports, anecdotal and academic, are moving to the same conclusion. An evaluation in Philadelphia cites uneven crime reduction performance of the cameras. One in the UK shows effectiveness with vehicle break-ins, but modest or no crime reduction benefits in other categories.
Cities that have the cameras or are considering them are now questioning if they are worth the expense. Suspects are rarely seen in ironclad identifying images and “chain of custody” challenges to the handling of the images are often successful.
In our current economic situation we should be certain that crime prevention measures are not discarded on the basis of cost alone. We should ensure that security cameras are thoroughly evaluated before they are discounted.