Thursday, February 16 2006 @ 10:55 AM PST
Contributed by: arch_stanton
Spying on YouHouston police chief Harol Hurtt has a delusion -- several, actually, but the one I'm referencing at the moment is his notion that installing surveillance cameras will help Houstonians feel safer and reduce crime. Hurtt not only wants to put cameras in public spaces downtown, he also wants to force new malls and apartment complexes to install camera systems with direct feeds to the police department as part of the building permit process, maybe even in private homes.
Over the top: Houston chief wants cameras in apartments, private homes
Houston police chief Harol Hurtt has a delusion -- several, actually, but the one I'm referencing at the moment is his notion that installing surveillance cameras will help Houstonians feel safer and reduce crime. Hurtt not only wants to put cameras in public spaces downtown, he also wants to force new malls and apartment complexes to install camera systems with direct feeds to the police department as part of the building permit process, maybe even in private homes.
As for privacy, Hurtt told reporters, "If you're not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?" Uh, because you respect the Constitution and personal liberty, maybe? The KGB used that same line in Communist Russia, one recalls, on their way to filling up a system of gulags.
Beyond privacy concerns there's a bigger problem: empirically cameras simply don't reduce crime. London, England today is the most surveilled city in the world. You supposedly can no longer walk outside in London without your image being captured by police on CCTV, or closed circuit television, as the Brits refer to it. Those cameras were installed in reaction to IRA terrorism, and are as integrated into their day-to-day police practices as any city in the world. Their cops have invested a lot of capital, political and monetary, into promoting them.
Facts are facts, though, and when the British Home Office (that nation's top law enforcement agency) last year released a long-term study on the topic, it revealed that surveillance cameras didn't reduce crime, confirming previous research. Reported the 2-24-05 London Evening Standard:
The findings [came] as a blow to the Home Office, which has trumpeted CCTV as a key crime-fighting weapon for the past 10 years.
The report's author, Professor Martin Gill of the University of Leicester, said: "For supporters these findings are disappointing. For the most part CCTV did not produce reductions in crime and did not make people feel safer."
The only one of the 14 schemes found to be a success was targeted at car parks, where it led to a significant drop in vehicle crime. Other schemes in city centres, residential areas and hospitals produced no clear benefits.
I know Hurtt probably doesn't read the British papers, and to be fair this is a fad among many in US law enforcement, but London's experience shows that, as a crime fighting tool, surveillance cameras are an expensive, fruitless boondoggle outside very narrow, well-defined circumstances. I've discussed before reasons why that might be true. Plus, as I told the Associated Press:
"Cameras can be defeated with very high tech means, like sunglasses and hats and disguises," Henson said, laughing. "So it is very easy to thwart the cameras, but if something happens, officers have to watch hours and hours and hours of video. And while they are doing that, they are not investigating crimes."
That last bit about cops wasting time watching video isn't just me talking. I borrowed the notion from a London cop/blogger who wrote in January that "CCTV viewing occupies a disproportionate amount of police time with very little tangible result. This fact is well known to street criminals." When both cops and the street criminals know cameras don't actually combat crime, the only reason left to favor camers is to fool the public into thinking you're doing something as a PR
While cameras may not make us safer, there's no question they make us more exposed to possible privacy violations. Mayor White needs to shut down this bad idea before it gets off the ground. As I wrote earlier this morning, if Houston thinks they need more enforcement, the city should hire more cops - to quote a past Grits commenter, "There's no replacement for boots on the ground - none."