Can Cameras Stop Criminals?

Oct. 27, 2008
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.

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 [email protected].