Can Cameras Stop Criminals?

Security professionals, privacy advocates and pundits have long argued the value of video as a deterrent. What’s the real story?


Around the world, and particularly in the United States, crime often evokes a knee-jerk reaction: Install video. This phenomenon is frightening and amazing. Here’s a camera, there’s a camera, everywhere’s a camera ... even Old McDonald has a camera on his farm. The question is, do all these cameras deter crime? Unfortunately, the majority of the time, the answer is no.

If you ask a crook, “Were you worried about being recorded and caught when you blew up the bus, robbed the convenience store, or mugged the old lady down the block?” chances are, the crook will answer, “If I was worried about being caught, I wouldn’t have done the crime.” Interviews with inmates in the UK prison system have backed up this assertion.

Only in the movies do you see people using special tools and techniques to avoid the camera’s all-seeing eye. Cameras do not deter most criminals in most situations. But when video systems meet certain requirements, they have a better chance of making crooks think twice.

What Can Make It a Deterrent?
In the late ’90s, the Peel Police department in Toronto, Canada, conducted a study that determined video only acts as a deterrent when its application meets the following four requirements:

1) The crime must evoke a heavy punishment. In other words, the criminal force must be scared of the consequences of their actions. If there is no heavy punishment in place, the only people who will be worried about committing a crime are the folks who are more or less honest in the first place.

2) You must have a high expectation of getting caught or recognized. If the overall perception is that the system is being watched and responded to with immediate consequences, you might have a deterrent. At 2:00 a.m., leaving a small pub in an even smaller English village, I heard a familiar whine of gears to my right. Looking around, I noticed that there was a camera staring at me. I stepped forward, it panned right; I stepped back, it panned left. I went around the corner and was picked up by the next camera. Did this scrutiny by an obviously bored civil servant deter me from any crimes? Ah, yes. I could have really used a tree or rock to give back some of the good Irish whiskey that I had drunk earlier. As it was, I moved quickly to the hotel six blocks away, with the continuous whine of my conscience somewhere to my back, left, right or front.

3) You must have a quick and speedy trial. If the punishment is not quick, the purpose behind it is forgotten. If you have ever housetrained a dog, you know that smacking the animal six hours after the pile was made on your great-grandmother’s cardigan only serves to confuse the dog. Not only does he not remember what he did wrong (even with his nose rubbed into it), but he thinks that you’re a putz as well for having smacked him. To stop the pile from forming a second time, you must punish for the first pile as soon as it happens. Sorry, but the average American court system just doesn’t work like it does on TV.

4) You must have a controlled population. If you’re monitoring an office in which the same hundred or so folks work day in and day out, a camera might pose as a deterrent to certain types of offenses or crimes. But if you have a gas station next to a major highway, you are going to have X number of thefts a week, cameras or not. The key factor is the familiarity of the persons being watched. Transients know that they will be X miles away before anyone can even respond to their misdeeds.

Case In Point
In Davenport, IA, there is a rumor going around that the city plans to use cameras to catch speeders in certain areas. Will this act as a deterrent? Certainly the deterrent will be there if the areas are defined and announced. Certainly the deterrent will be there if the expected punishment is personal, swift and significant.

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