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Surveillance Cameras Just Don't Cut Crime

July 22, 2005

Video surveillance cameras and closed-circuit television are becoming more widespread in American life. Fears of terrorism and crime as well as the availability of ever-cheaper cameras have accelerated the trend.

Community and merchants groups are calling for installing video surveillance cameras in some of Hartford's more troubled neighborhoods. These efforts are misguided.

The use of sophisticated surveillance systems by law enforcement is troubling in a democratic society. Do we really want a British-style system for our city? In the words of Justice Louis D. Brandeis: "The right of the people to be let alone [is] the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by a civilized [people]." It is argued that in today's world we must sacrifice individual liberty because of the greater need for public safety. This is a false choice.

The United Kingdom has conducted what amounts to a massive experiment with closed-circuit TV - video feeds monitored by human beings. In Britain, cameras have been extensively deployed in public places. Any question about the efficacy of surveillance cameras in fighting crime was laid to rest by the two studies conducted by the British Home Office - a proponent of video surveillance technology. In 2002, the Home Office reviewed 46 studies that analyzed the cameras' crime-fighting value. In 2005, it reviewed 22. Half showed a negative or no effect on crime. The other half showed a negligible decrease - at most 4 percent.

Unmonitored cameras are the least effective. Other American cities, notably Oakland and Detroit, considered video surveillance and decided against it. The Oakland police chief said his department had hoped to be "among the pioneers in the field of taped video camera surveillance" but ultimately found that "there is no conclusive way to establish that the presence of video surveillance resulted in the prevention or reduction of crime." The use of surveillance cameras was also abandoned in Miami Beach, Newark, and White Plains and Mount Vernon, N.Y.

The bottom line is that in center-city and residential areas, video technology has no beneficial effect on reducing crime. At best, it displaces criminal activity to areas outside the range of the cameras. At worst, as in Britain, it has negatively changed people's behavior; the camera becomes an instrument to enforce social conformity. The fear of being spied upon by Big Brother has a real cost to an open society.

Furthermore, monitored surveillance cameras are an invitation to abuse. We know from the British experience that those monitoring cameras engage in racial profiling as they pivot the cameras and zoom in on their targets. Boredom is often relieved by surveillance camera voyeurism: focusing on attractive women and amorous couples.

Cameras don't fight crime - cops do. Our natural fear of being victimized by crime makes us predisposed to see surveillance cameras as a solution. But once people know that cameras are not effective at reducing the crime rate, they turn to the solution that does work - namely community policing. Armed with the facts, people understand that cameras diminish security by diverting limited funds from putting officers into our neighborhoods.

The surveillance camera issue is not whether we must sacrifice our freedom to enhance our security. We purchase and install surveillance cameras to the detriment of both our security and our freedom.

Annette Lamoreaux is legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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