Gauging the Success of Video Surveillance Hinges on Solid Strategies

As municipal video surveillance systems began to propagate the urban landscape in the United States nearly two decades ago, there were the obvious issues that beset almost every community looking to post its first camera. How do you get the community...


As municipal video surveillance systems began to propagate the urban landscape in the United States nearly two decades ago, there were the obvious issues that beset almost every community looking to post its first camera.

How do you get the community support to rally around the concept of public surveillance? How do you deal with the privacy concerns? How do you create a seamless relationship between the public and private sectors? What about funding? Perhaps the most daunting query comes from those who posed the simple question — is video surveillance in the public sector effective in reducing crime?

Video surveillance in an urban environment has been a high-profile topic in the United Kingdom for years, where cameras were first installed in public areas to help quell hooliganism and quiet drunken soccer crowds. Monitoring high-crime areas soon followed.

There has been a rather raucous argument between those in the UK supporting video surveillance and those opposed to it since its inception, citing minimal-at-best benefits. Those opposed say the cameras have only served to move the crime and problems out of one neighborhood and into another.

In fact, in 2010, more than a half dozen European countries collaborated on something called the “citizens, cities and video surveillance” project that took a comprehensive look at the social, legal and political fallout from the proliferation of urban video surveillance installations across Western Europe. A section of the report admitted that British lawmakers are now rethinking their own video surveillance strategies initiated more than 25 years ago.

Soon after the report was made public in mid-2010, Britain’s Deputy-Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced that the government was going to prepare a new law for the protection of fundamental rights. In a press conference he declared: “This government will end the culture of spying on its citizens. It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have got something to hide. Video surveillance is going to be the object of custom-made laws.’’

The advent of video surveillance has been a natural progression of U.S. law enforcement, whose mission has been to incorporate the best of technology to enhance and extend their own public safety efforts. As tax dollars and funding impact new police hires, technology plays a greater role.

Just recently, the Urban Institute (UI), a research institute focused on public policy and government initiated by President Lyndon Johnson back in the mid-1960s, released a report evaluating the impact of video surveillance cameras on crime control and crime prevention. The abstract of the report, entitled “Evaluating the Use of Public Surveillance Cameras for Crime Control and Prevention” summarized the evaluations of public surveillance deployments in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., examining how each of the respective systems were selected and implemented and then assessed their impact on their intended crime prevention.

Interestingly enough, the results showed a mixed bag of success. In Baltimore and Chicago, it appears the investment in camera installation, maintenance and monitoring are beginning to pay off in reduced crime — particularly in downtown areas with the greatest concentration of cameras. Results in Washington showed that while some violent crime saw significant reduction, larcenies increased, tainting the impact of the video surveillance efforts in D.C.

Both the U.S. and European research highlights the fact that technology is not a silver bullet. It is only successful when used in the context of a well-envisioned and coordinated security and policing strategy. If video surveillance is not implemented and integrated correctly, it is unlikely to yield much impact on crime.

Fortunately, technology vendors and systems integrators have been active in promoting best-in-class solutions. Their efforts have provided more robust and cost-effective video surveillance options for the ever-growing number of municipalities who are joining this expanding security landscape.