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Leslie Gilmour

Do CCTV Cameras Reduce Crime?

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Following on from my last post asking the question - Do CCTV Cameras Make Us Feel Safer, I decided to do some research on their actual effectiveness.

Governments are now spending millions of dollars on closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems with the interest of reducing crime rates. The idea is to use these monitoring systems to identify potential perpetrators. It is also intended to deter criminals from committing crimes with the sight of cameras recording every scene. Despite most governments’ stand defending this spending as a necessity for public order, researchers do not seem to support this perception. (note the follow does not alway apply to remote CCTV monitoring that is live warning enabled)

Doubts on CCTV’s ability to lessen crime frequency are now spreading as studies on CCTV effectiveness increase in numbers. In 2015, Lincoln’s Police Chief said their department did not see any significant contribution of CCTV’s to their overall effort of stemming criminal activities in the city. Even after incorporating this surveillance system to their police activities, the number of assaults in the city still remained on par with their five (5) year average. The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NARCO), claimed that although well-planned CCTV can definitely contribute in crime prevention its effectiveness is often overstated. 

In 2013 an opinion piece of the Chicago Tribune quoted a city spokesman who claimed that the surveillance system helped the city solve 4,500 crimes over four years. The Chicago Tribune writer, however, was able to note that more than a million crimes have been estimated to have taken place within that period. Which means that the systems’ contribution at best was just around 0.05%. A study by NARCO featured an evaluation of 24 CCTV systems in housing estates, town centers, public transport, and car parks. Only thirteen (13) of the CCTV systems resulted in a significant drop in crime. Seven (7) of them showed no effect while the remaining four (4) resulted in a significant rise in crime rates. There is even evidence that pointed out that the biggest falls in crime linked to CCTV happened before the cameras were operational.

Also according to a review from the British Home Office, CCTV had only shown a negligible four (4) percent decrease in crime. Some areas in Glasgow, Scotland even had a nine (9) percent crime rate increased after the cameras were installed. These monitoring systems also have the tendency to cause unintended results. One of these unintended results is what is now called the “displacement effect”. This when the heightened security of an area caused by CCTV presence moves the criminal activities to areas with less remote surveillance. This, therefore, offsets the lowered crime rate in a certain location. 

One of biggest concerns apart from CCTV’s seemingly underwhelming contribution to crime prevention is its cost. NARCO claims that despite the government and public’s support in increasing CCTV capabilities, there is still no substantive and quality evidence that supports the measure’s efficiency. Around 1996 to 1998, CCTV took three-quarters of the Home Office Crime Prevention budget. NARCO’s expressed its concern that we may have just been preferring CCTV to other more cost-efficient measures like proper street lighting. Rachel Armitage, of NARCOs’ crime and social policy unit, claimed that an adequately lit street is safer than a dark alley monitored by CCTV. NARCO cautioned that we may be over-investing in the cameras. This investment could be shifted to more effective measures. According to NARCO streetlights might be four (4) times as good in deterring criminals as CCTV. In addition, the said organization claims that the main reason why people like having CCTV is that the police endorses this system. The greater security is, therefore, a mere state of mind. It is also expected to die down without the constant CCTV system publicity that fuels its popularity.

CCTV systems also worry some people as it affects privacy to a certain degree. Cameras don’t just record criminals, they record everyone’s activities. Not everyone is comfortable with the government having a “god’s eye system” that’s capable of documenting its citizens’ personal events. For some, having to experience the inconvenience of cameras monitoring them would not worth it if does not deliver on lowering crime rates. 

Despite all of these concerns on CCTV monitoring, a significant number of people are still insisting that the surveillance system is a necessity in implementing law and order. While its effectiveness in deterring crimes is currently in question, people still put a lot of trust in its capability to document situations. Having records on situations gives law enforcers’ advantage in tracking down assailants. 

Some argue that CCTV’s effectiveness in deterring crimes should be expected as the main advantage of installing cameras is not being able to stop crimes. It is for the user to be able to solve crimes. With this said, its level of contribution to law and order should be dependent on the effectivity of how the system is being used. Since technology needs to be applied appropriately to situations, we should focus on effective surveillance practices instead of declaring cameras impractical. 

Some also argue that measuring police surveillance is a complicated process as there could be a lot of factors involved in the increase or decrease in the crime rates. The increase in crime occurrences in areas with CCTV might have been caused by the surge in the number of documented criminal activities captured by the surveillance system. A number of vague variables like the one mentioned affecting the credibility of the previous studies. The Home Office Research Group in the United Kingdom was even reported to have discarded twenty-four (24) evaluations from Europe and North America because they identified errors in their methods. 

With these complications and varying opinions, it is high time that we do more studies on our surveillance systems. We should work on identifying gray areas that might have been overlooked in the previous evaluations. Additional assessments could also contribute as their results may act as additional evidence on CCTV’s underwhelming effectiveness. The Home Office and the Department for Transport, Local Government and Regions have been committed to commissioning in-depth studies that are designed to effectively assess the cameras’ contribution on implementing law and order. The surveillance system’s cost-effectiveness is also being reviewed.

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