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?

Look around and you’ll see plenty of proof that traffic camera systems, or red light systems, work. I know that I am very conscious of the position of my car when a traffic light turns red. In the Chicago area, there are similar systems in place to punish speeders in work zones. Anyone going over the 45-mile-an-hour limit is issued a $365.00 ticket with potential loss of license and/or insurance.

However, the rumored Davenport system doesn’t meet as many of the deterrence requirements as Chicago’s system. The word on the street is that tickets will run $45.00 for anyone cruising from one to five miles an hour over the limit, though it will cost considerably more for speeds beyond those. The tickets are issued to the car, not the driver, and so have no affect on insurance or driving records. The bottom line is that the rumored system may or may not be a deterrent. If I’m driving someone else’s car, or I’m in a hurry, what do I care about a $45.00 ticket? Not much.

A Failed Experiment?
I can’t tell you the number of people who contacted me after the July 7 London bombings to say the massive camera systems of the U.K.had failed in their mission. Is that true?

Did the cameras stop the crime from happening? No; they didn’t seem to concern the bombers at all. But did the cameras fail? Absolutely not. Within 48 hours suspects were being rounded up. How was it done so fast? Video playback. The CCTV system may not have deterred the crime, but it certainly has gone the full road to preventing another one of equal caliber from happening soon. The system’s lack of efficacy as an immediate deterrent does not mean it isn’t a useful tool in the fight against crime and terrorism.

Weighing the Options
Without side stepping, let’s consider some important thoughts. In 1970, when the average American left home, went to work or the store and returned, he or she would be recorded on an average of one to two systems a week (not including systems in place inside the workplace). In 1980 the number of such recordings increased to five times or so a week. In 1990, it went up to 10 to 15 times a week depending upon where you lived and worked. In 2000, the number of recordings increased to five to 10 times a day. Today, it is a fair guess that the average city dweller, driver, bank visitor, government worker, shopper, or average Joe walking the paths of life will be recorded an average of 25 to 50 times a day on as many systems.

Has there been a significant drop in crime to verify or justify all of this video? Yes and no. Based upon various studies that have been done in the U.K. and the U.S., the majority of crime that is stopped by all of the cameras is car theft. Crimes like petty theft, drug abuse and car break-ins drop off completely as long as a system is monitored and responded to. However, let the system go back to automatic or record only, and the crime rate returns to its previous state. Crimes such as murder, terrorism and violence—“passion” crimes—do not stop or slow down regardless of the rate of surveillance and response. Based upon this, CCTV systems are, in most cases, living records and not deterrents.

So in the end, you must ask yourself this singular, simple and extremely important question. If all these camera systems do not stop or deter crime on a consistent basis, is your privacy worth giving up for a slightly enhanced feeling of security? Benjamin Franklin said it best more than 200 years ago: “If you give up privacy for the sake of security, soon you will have neither.”

Charlie R. Pierce is director of integrated security technology for IPC International Corporation. He can be reached at