Is Municipal Video Surveillance Worth the Cost?

Research from the Urban Institute finds the answer to be a qualified “yes”


Does an investment in municipal video surveillance pay dividends to cities that fund these projects — sometimes to the tune of millions of dollars in installation, service and monitoring costs?

That’s the question that Dr. Nancy La Vigne sought to answer. La Vigne, the director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute — a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization based in Washington, D.C. — investigated this question as part of her research report, “Evaluating the Use of Public Surveillance Cameras for Crime Control and Prevention.” The research was a landmark study for the law enforcement community and the video surveillance industry, as she tried to put hard numbers on the often-anecdotal world of camera-assisted policing. The research was initially released in Sept. 2011, and was presented to attendees of the third Secured Cities Conference, held this April in Chicago.

Chicago was a fitting location to present the research. The city, along with Washington, D.C., and Baltimore were part of the research for the report, which sought to track decreases (or increases) in crime, along with the associated costs to victims and to the operational requirements of the local justice system following the installation of municipal video surveillance (a.k.a. public surveillance cameras).

“It’s just not enough to prevent crime,” La Vigne said in her presentation at Secured Cities. “You have to ask if it has been done in a cost-effective manner.”

For her study, La Vigne tracked the costs of the systems along with associated monitoring costs, and compared that to baseline costs for certain crimes, including costs to the justice systems for processing of that criminal activity — both via law enforcement and via the courts. She also considered a “victimization cost.”

As the National Institute for Justice (NIJ) wrote in introducing its 1996 report on victimization costs titiled, “The Extent and Costs of Crime Victimization: A New Look”: “The cost of crime has two dimensions: a dollar amount calculated by adding up property losses, productivity losses, and medical bills, and an amount less easily quantifiable because it takes the forms of pain, emotional trauma, and risk of death from victimization.”

La Vigne tracked crime statistics in areas that were under surveillance in Washington, Chicago and Baltimore, and then compared to those system costs for the surveillance to the crime costs at the government level and at the victimization level. What she found is astounding.

In Chicago, she found a 4.29:1 benefit-to-cost ratio, and in Baltimore, she found a 1.49:1 benefit-to-cost ratio — meaning that for every dollar spent on municipal video surveillance in Chicago, the city saved $4.29 in court, law enforcement and victimization costs; while in Baltimore, every $1 returned a dividend of $1.49. It is proof that a dollar spent on camera systems returns dividends; however, in the particular Washington, D.C., area that was studied she didn’t find crime reduction notable and thus couldn’t put a value on the benefit-to-cost ratio. In Chicago, even without victimization costs factored in, there was still a 2.81:1 benefit-to-cost ratio, and in Baltimore an approximately 1:1 benefit-to-cost ratio.

But police and mayors calling systems integrators to haphazardly hang cameras on light poles is not enough, Dr. La Vigne said. She found three common attributes associated with video systems that created return on investment.

The first was active monitoring — not simply recording unwatched video to an NVR or a server. Secondly, there was a link between camera density (camera concentration) and system effectiveness. And third, systems that returned results integrated the video surveillance directly into law enforcement activities. A perfect example is Baltimore, where the CitiWatch program under the direction of Lt. Samuel Hood III, is used to actively watch for crimes and dispatches officers directly to deal with live crime events.

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