Saturday, March 21, 2009
George Orwell, CCTV and the Ring of Steel
How many times have you turned on TV news and watched security camera images of crooks robbing a convenience store? Or CCTV images of street violence broadcast on the evening news? Security cameras have been with us for many decades, usually inside buildings and vulnerable underground parking lots.
Ever since the UK installed thousands of cameras on public streets a decade ago debate has raged whether they prevent crime or infringe on our privacy. Or both. Offical eyes watching our every move!
Since the early 1990s the UK has led the way. Today over a half million cameras have watched public places all around London. This is the so-called ring of steel. Orwell would roll over!
Obviously we cannot consider city safety until we look at the issue of CCTV in public places. Does it work? Are there better answers?
The most authoritative voices I have found are David Farrington and Brandon Welsh. Most of their UK research shows conflicting results. Half the time public CCTV can have a positive (but small) impact. The other half the time, no impact at all.
read the Farrington study
Later they report street lighting has equal crime prevention impact to cameras in downtown areas, but these effects were greater in the UK than in North America.
read the Camera vs Lighting research
This is all music to the ears of those practicing Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design - CPTED. The CPTED folks have said for years building a livable and vital downtown, where a wide range of people spend their leisure evening hours, is the best way to improve the natural visibility.
I remember when public cameras were installed in in Sudbury, Canada over a decade ago following some downtown bank robberies. I recently read a Washington Post article on a similar trend in US cities
read the Washington Post article
None of which answers the questions: Does CCTV really work to prevent crime downtown? Are there better ways to prevent crime?
One thing we know for sure:
Every time we watch a robber or street violence on CCTV, the crime is already underway. Cameras might help police catch bad guys later. But those cameras did nothing to prevent crime in the first place.
If they did, we wouldn't be watching them on TV!