Researchers at the Urban Institute are taking a hard look at law enforcement’s use of surveillance cameras. In a study to be released at the end of the year, researchers are looking at three cities’ use of the cameras. In Baltimore, MD, the recent conviction of a woman accused of assault and handgun violations was achieved, in large measure, through the valuable footage provided by police surveillance cameras.
The Baltimore video reveals that it is not just the recording of static images that won the conviction, but, actually, the actions of the trained and skilled police officers who staffed the cameras and the monitoring studio. Although the conviction is a victory for proponents of surveillance cameras in police work, some continue to debate the value of surveillance cameras when weighed against the costs of equipment and deployment and perceived incursions into the privacy of citizens.
The Urban Institute study is looking at how cities are deploying and using the cameras to investigate and prosecute suspects. Baltimore, one of the cities under study, is monitoring the cameras’ images nearly 24-7, using police officers and retired personnel as real-time observers. These experienced, skilled officers are able to 1) recognize a crime (e.g., a drug transaction) from the images on the screen and 2) communicate immediately to officers on patrol to capture or track down fleeing suspects. On occasion, the observing officers have even directed the on patrol officers on the route to use to apprehend suspects. The city prosecutor is reaping the benefits of good positive identifications of suspects, which translate into sounder criminal cases for that office. The Baltimore City Police Department thinks of the surveillance cameras in all aspects of their policing and not as a stand-alone resource. They envision the technology as an enhancement and an extension of their police services, not as a replacement for patrols or crime prevention. Preliminarily, the researchers have been impressed by the impact they are seeing from the use of the cameras in Baltimore.
Two other cities in the study are using the cameras but are not integrating them in police work as extensively as they are being used Baltimore. In their early analysis, the researchers are finding that the cities that further invest resources (technology, money, staff power) into their initial investment on surveillance cameras are getting the best crime prevention and law enforcement bang for their buck.
While the report, once published, will shed light on the cost/benefit question and ideal implementation strategies police departments might follow, I don’t think it will stop the debate that surrounds the surveillance camera strategy. What do you think? Click on the comments link below and let us hear from you.