New Research: How Public Surveillance Cameras Can Deter Crime

security cameraThis week, journalism professor and self-proclaimed “Buzz-machine,” Jeff Jarvis, released his book, "Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live.” While many in America are fighting for their rights to privacy, Jarvis takes a rather controversial angle and argues for "publicness" as a way to make the most of modern technologies (Wall Street Journal, 2011).

How do we then define privacy in the public sector when it comes to video surveillance? Many privacy advocates speak out against video surveillance in public, stating that the infringement on privacy rights outweighs the measures taken for crime prevention. However, some studies have shown that this may not be the case for the majority of the population and that the claims that security surveillance deters are crime are not unfounded.

Last month the Urban Institute, a non-partisan economic & social policy research center, released an impact report, Evaluating the Use of Public Surveillance Cameras for Crime Control and Prevention, focusing its attention on camera networks in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington D.C. and coming up with some interesting results.

Both Baltimore and Chicago boasted extensive surveillance camera networks. Baltimore employs around-the-clock monitoring of their live video footage. Chicago has an incredible wireless networking camera system that gives any number law enforcement officers at a time the unique ability to access live video feed from their desktop computers. Impressively, both Baltimore and Chicago saw their investments lead to a significant decline in crime. In Baltimore it was reported that camera use recorded suspects in action, images of getaway vehicles, and even compelled many witnesses to cooperate with police (Urban Institute, 2011).

In contrast, Washington D.C. chose to set up lighter city-wide surveillance with stricter regulations. The capital city of the United States implemented fewer cameras in high-crime neighborhoods than Baltimore and Chicago as well as restricted live monitoring to a limited set of factors and contexts in order to protect citizens’ rights to privacy. The regulations severely limited the extent of active monitoring employed in D.C. and therefore, cameras alone did not appear to have an impact on crime in D.C. (Urban Institute, 2011).

The impact report noted that, “Public surveillance technology is viewed as a potentially useful tool for preventing crimes, aiding in arrests, and supporting investigations and prosecutions.” They found that when cameras were actively monitored, the cost benefit on crime was significant with little evidence of displacement to other areas. Areas in which cameras were not actively monitored on a routine basis, with lower concentration of cameras and few overlapping views, however, had a markedly reduced ability to capture crimes.

How then should we define privacy in public spaces and how should law enforcement and loss prevention teams implement these security measures? 3VR has long espoused that individuals should be informed of video surveillance whenever possible and feasible. In addition, Jarvis finds that privacy is a matter of ethics - respecting what others intend to keep private and choose to make public (Wall Street Journal, 2011). Research even shows that many consumers are comfortable with the use of surveillance video – even when used for non-security reasons (Zogby436, 2011). There is still much to be decided by the public as new technologies emerge and evolve the way privacy and security is defined.