The security week that was: 9/30/11 (the affect of cameras on crime)

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When cameras affect crime

In many ways, the security industry has become the video surveillance industry. It has become the dominant technology in many end-users’ environments -- from the small user level all the way to enterprise user level. Walk into your local 24-hour gas station and you’ll find a basic intrusion alarm system that they set if they ever leave, but running all the time is usually a basic video camera and recorder solution set up to capture an image of a robber. You might also find a camera in that retail environment looking directly down on the till. Go into an airport and you’ll find plenty of electronic door access systems (some keys, some prox), but if you look up and count the cameras, you quickly realize that cameras have come to dominate the transportation environment. Flying this last week, I was stuck in a slow-moving line for the TSA checkpoint and I counted over 60 surveillance cameras, some of them just a hands-width away from another camera. Walk down the halls of a modern office building and I bet you will count more mini-domes than you will count electronic card access points. Look over into the world of law enforcement, and you’ll find cameras inside police cruisers, mounted on street lights, pointing at roadways and tunnels and watching over transit stations.

So, apparently we’re camera crazy, and many of you who are equipment installers are making a good living installing this stuff. But there’s always been a little nagging question in our industry: Do cameras really matter? Why, yes, they definitely matter, we’d say, because how else are you going to get visual evidence of a crime for your investigation? But do they really matter, do they actually prevent crime? That was a tougher question, and the answer you received depended on who you asked. Some would say yes, they reduce crime. Others would say, no, they only displace crime. Still others might have said no, they only help you investigate.

But that was only anecdotal and presupposed insight into the effectiveness of cameras. Now, we finally have some definitive input on the effectiveness of cameras. Dr. Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, is considered by many to be the nation’s premier researcher on crime mapping and crime prevention strategies, and last week she published her report, “Evaluating the Use of Public Surveillance Cameras for Crime Control and Prevention.” Dr. La Vigne, who is presenting her research at the Secured Cities conference on Nov. 10-11, found a few key things from Baltimore’s video project. She found that that 1) crime dropped 25 percent in the areas of the downtown cameras and 2) that crime was not simply displaced.

Now, before we all jump to the conclusions and start heralding some sort of bad headline like “Cameras cut crime”, let’s qualify this situation. I’m in a unique position to do so, after spending time with Baltimore this week discussing their video project. First, let me give you the overview. Baltimore and the State of Maryland is very supportive of using available technologies to prevent and control crime. The Baltimore camera project started under Martin O’Malley, who was mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007. In 2007, he became Governor, and the mayor since then has been Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is equally an advocate of using technology to provide public safety advantages for her constituents.

The city didn’t just put in cameras; it actually has two monitoring centers, and it actively monitors its video feeds. Former officers are watching select cameras, especially during high-crime times (something they know because of crime-mapping/Compstat data-intelligence efforts). They focus on areas and actively use PTZ cameras to train their eyes remotely on incidents. They know that if you’re watching a camera in a high-crime location in the middle of the night and you see someone moving around, there’s a very good chance that you’re seeing either a potential victim or a criminal. The city has some impressive technology from companies like VidSys and DVTel (along with a ton of other vendors) and the image quality of their system will stun you, especially when you’re watching a camera at night and it looks almost like a day-time feed (and I even say that after just returning from the ASIS tradeshow where I got a chance to see some of today’s hottest technology).

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