Is CCTV the Best Option?
In one survey, when asked to rank desired crime prevention strategies, the public was offered CCTV, more police officers patrolling on foot, more or brighter streetlights at night, or more private security patrols. CCTV ranked third behind more police patrols and more or brighter streetlights.42 Cameras can provide surveillance over an area, but they may not necessarily act as a replacement for police officers, as they cannot offer the same range of services an officer can provide. Therefore, CCTV is best seen as an additional tool for law enforcement rather than a replacement for existing practices. Furthermore, implementation times can be significant: not only does it take time to requisition and install cameras, but operating procedures, space allocation, and staffing arrangements can be time-consuming and costly. CCTV is not a short-term fix, but an ongoing commitment.
The evaluations described in the appendices suggest that CCTV is not a panacea that works in all circumstances. In a number of cases, CCTV has not reduced crime. In others, it has. The context is therefore important. There may be other solutions that are cheaper, more flexible, and quicker to implement than CCTV. Are you seeking to protect a single, specific target? If so, a response geared directly to that target may suffice. A reinforced door or security grills may not look attractive, but they may be more cost-effective and quicker to install. Similarly, street closures can redirect traffic and have an impact on an area’s crime level.‡ If, after thorough research and analysis, you determine CCTV is worth further consideration, there are a number of decisions to make, some of which follow.
‡ See Response Guide No. 2, Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime for further information.
Deciding on a Camera Configuration
Overt camera systems are common. The cameras are in view of the public and are often accompanied by signs indicating that people are now in a CCTV surveillance area. Overt systems have a strong crime prevention rationale but are more vulnerable to tampering and vandalism.
These systems are in public view, but the cameras are concealed behind a one-way transparent casing. This approach retains most of the preventative rationale of the overt system, but the cameras have some protection. It also prevents the public from determining who is under surveillance and allows you to conceal the exact number of cameras in a system, as you are not required to install a camera in every casing.§
§ You should consider the potential liability issues in the section “How CCTV aims to prevent crime.”
With these systems, the aim is to hide camera locations. These systems are particularly well suited to crime detection; however, without public signage or a publicity campaign, they have little crime prevention function until word spreads within the offender community. These cameras are fairly immune to tampering.
If deterrence is the primary goal, then the mere presence of a camera should be sufficient. It may not be necessary to spend vast sums on the latest technology. This holds true if another aim is to alert police to any incidents as a reactive information mechanism, and then rely on police or local security to deal with the incidents. If the aim is to aid in the prosecution and conviction of offenders, then it may be necessary to purchase a system with high-resolution cameras and recording equipment. Cameras that produce fewer frames per second are less expensive, but the resulting footage can appear choppy, making it harder to identify relevant information.43 A suitable night-vision capability may also be required. Cameras that have power to provide, often at some distance, images of sufficient clarity to support an evidential case in court are considerably more advanced than cameras in the majority of current systems. These additional requirements will increase costs.
Additional features available include night vision, bullet-proof casing, motion detection, facial recognition, links to gunshot recognition systems, and even defensive mechanisms that detect when a camera is under attack and train other cameras to that location.44 These features do not necessarily improve the crime-reduction function, though they may improve the system’s survivability. They will also increase the costs.
Understanding the climate and geography of the area where you are placing cameras is also important in determining which type of camera or equipment is best suited for your location. For instance, wireless cameras may not be the best option in locations where it is difficult to get a signal.45 It may be helpful to hire a qualified and experienced CCTV consultant to help you determine which camera and equipment will best suit your purposes.46
As stated previously, if the public—and especially the offending public—are not aware cameras are watching, the preventative aspect of CCTV will not function. Covert systems require no publicity, but you should consider the costs and the placement of any signage that advises the public about overt cameras. A media campaign can help, but can also be relatively short-lived: the media can rapidly lose interest in CCTV, especially if they are not permitted to have access to camera footage. Bear in mind that even with publicity, a number of surveys have shown that most of the public tend to be unaware they are in CCTV areas, so significant effort should be made to advertise the cameras’ presence if you want to maximize the system’s preventative aspect.
Where Should Cameras be Located?
Guidelines are available for many of the activities involving CCTV47; however, guidelines for locating cameras are usually not provided. As a practical matter, crime analysis is not necessarily the sole determinant of CCTV camera locations. The cities of New York and Cincinnati, Ohio used town hall meetings and liaisons with the public to determine potential locations for CCTV installation.48 Although police recorded-crime data are known to be incomplete, crime analysis still remains the most objective way to determine areas that may need CCTV. If caution is not exercised, it’s possible cameras can be placed in locations that more reflect the influence of local politics and public misconceptions about fear of crime rather than actual crime hot spots. If schemes are orchestrated and primarily directed by local authorities, there is a risk police can be excluded from the crucial design stage, including the placement of cameras. If the system’s measure of effectiveness is to reduce crime, then camera locations that are not primarily driven by the crime distribution are unlikely to demonstrate any significant crime-reduction benefits.
The choice of camera locations should, ideally, result from a high-quality crime analysis that not only incorporates a micro-level mapping of local crime patterns, but also an appreciation for the types of crime the system aims to target. It is also valuable to conduct a number of site visits that examine the lines of sight for cameras and identify any potential obstructions. If time permits, visits during different times of the year are advisable because spring and summer foliage can obscure a camera image that appears clear in winter, and Christmas lights and other seasonal holiday decorations can also impede the view from some cameras. The main determining factor should be the crime problem, and crime mapping systems can be fundamental in identifying crime hot spots and other areas of need.§§ The design of the space to be surveilled makes a difference in CCTV’s success. If the city has multiple hot spots where cameras may be useful but not enough funds to install them at all locations, one option is to have a mobile unit such as Fort Lauderdale’s Peacemaker which can be relocated as needed.49
§§ For readers unaware of crime mapping, the website of the National Institute of Justice Mapping and Analysis for Public Safety (MAPS) program offers a good introduction to the concept (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/maps). See also Chainey and Ratcliffe (2005).
Who Will Operate the System?
One of the first decisions is whether the system will be actively or passively monitored. Active systems are more expensive to operate as they require staff to be continuously present, but they produce better results and allow for in-the-moment reactions. Additionally, they may reduce time spent on a case by allowing officers to gather evidence more quickly or, in some cases, allowing for apprehension of the suspect at the scene.
Although the aim of CCTV is to reduce crime, the actual operation of most schemes is split between police operators and civilian operators, who are either employees of the local authority or city, or occasionally (as in a small Detroit CCTV scheme) local civilian volunteers.50 In much of the literature from the UK, it appears police are less concerned with the system’s ownership than by ensuring they are the system’s primary and priority users. Because police rarely have the funds for complete systems, a common arrangement is for police to enter into partnerships with local authorities and city management.
If a civilian organization operates the cameras, then the system will be most effective when integrated into a police command-and-control system, so a coordinated response to identified incidents can be made timely and effectively. This means you should arrange for a direct communication link from the CCTV control location to local police. To ensure rapid communication, some civilian control facilities have police radios so they can communicate directly with officers on the street. An additional advantage is that operators with access to police communications can train their cameras on incidents that police become aware of without having to be contacted by police. For example, if a shop calls police to suspected shoplifters, or if police request further assistance to make arrests, the camera operators can train their cameras on the incident immediately upon hearing the information on the police radio.
In some configurations, police monitor the cameras’ video displays, which are fed to monitors at the local police station. Often, the police operator is whoever is on duty. These individuals are often not trained in the system’s operation and have other duties to perform at the same time, limiting the actual surveillance.¶ As a result, the systems are less effective from a proactive stance, and become a reactive tool that merely aids the deployment of officers to incidents that have occurred.
¶ When a system is monitored by the police officer in charge of a station front desk, the system is not monitored when the officer attends to a police station visitor (Leman-Langlois, 2002).
One Detroit neighborhood plans for local volunteers to monitor cameras through a password-protected internet feed, though this proposal has raised civil liberty issues.51 Similar concerns exist for a proposal in Soulard, a St. Louis neighborhood, that might allow any local resident to control the camera through an internet site.52 The negative implications of this type of crime-reduction intervention from a civil-liberties perspective may outweigh any crime-reduction benefits. Although it does reduce ongoing human costs, you should not select this type of system without careful consideration. A public survey of the proposed idea may convince you not to proceed with a system monitored and controlled by the public.
Do You Have Both the Capital and Revenue Funds for Operation?
Initial capital costs for CCTV systems fluctuate, though they are generally falling as the technology becomes more mainstream. In addition, government grants have made it easier to obtain funding for CCTV systems. However, if you do receive a grant, when the money runs out it is up to your department to provide funds for continued system operation.53 Full system costs exceed the equipment price and often include software, vandalism protection, connecting to power supplies, network creation, and site preparation.54 Human costs continue for the life of the scheme and are often difficult to contain. Once a CCTV system is operational, there is likely to be considerable reluctance to downsize or dismantle it. Ongoing maintenance, repairs, and upgrading costs may end up being more expensive than the initial setup, so it is important that you plan ahead for these expenses.55 A CCTV system is a permanent cost. In one scheme three staff members were let go after 18 months of operation, due to a lack of ongoing operating funds.56 When departments do not have enough funds for personnel, they may have to choose between having the operator monitor more cameras than the industry standard and not monitoring all of the cameras which may then impact the system’s ability to effectively reduce crime.57
Do the Local Police Have the Resources to Respond to Any Incidents?
There is scant evidence that CCTV significantly reduces public order and violent offenses, but the impact of these crimes can be reduced with a quick and effective police response, and this is a real potential benefit of CCTV. As interviews with offenders have shown, many are not deterred by the presence of CCTV58, though CCTV does work as a deterrent with offenders who have been caught with CCTV and are aware they were caught with CCTV. As a result, it is prudent to ensure an effective police response is available. This may require additional police resources for the long term, a cost that may need to be factored into CCTV running costs, or at least into the local community safety budget.
Who and What Should be Watched?
None of the six CCTV schemes studies by Goold59 had established effective systems of control and regulation, and the lack of police involvement in the early implementation stages increased the difficulties for police to regulate the systems according to their needs, or for the camera use to reflect police priorities. Goold also noticed that in police-managed CCTV schemes, civilian operators tended to use the cameras to follow individuals based on their behavioral attributes (demeanor, aggressiveness, behavior to others, running in a busy street, and so on) more so than in civilian-run schemes. Regardless of who ran the system, the majority of surveillance was conducted based on a target’s behavioral or categorical attributes (age, dress, gender, race), or because the camera operator had personal knowledge of the individual based on contact with police officers.
As a guide, it is prudent for any system to have:
- Operational guidelines
- Employee vetting
- Effective training (in matters such as camera operation, recording practices, the length of time tapes are retained, and mechanisms to contact police)
- Established complaint procedures for concerned citizens
- A clear policy about whom and what are the subjects of targeting as well as consequences for camera misuse
With regard to the last item, a clear policy, intelligence on local crime patterns, and likely suspects based on thorough, sound, and objective crime analysis and intelligence appears essential. A policy based on an objective interpretation of the criminal environment would help deflect some of the (occasional) criticism that CCTV operators unfairly target marginalized populations.
There is one scenario that is rarely discussed but should be considered. What if the cameras capture images of police misconduct? This should be addressed for systems that are operated by police or local authorities. Hopefully this is only a hypothetical issue, but you should determine a policy. The majority of officers interviewed in one study said the cameras forced them to be more careful when on patrol.60 It is possible that officers may be more reluctant to use reasonable force in circumstances that require a high level of force.
Many funding sources that can provide the money for a CCTV scheme also require an evaluation of the scheme. An ideal evaluation would be a robust one that avoids most, if not all, of the criticisms leveled at poorer evaluations.61 Although a “quick and dirty” evaluation conducted locally and with little methodological rigor may satisfy a grant’s minimum criteria, it is unlikely to be of wider benefit to the problem-oriented policing and crime-reduction community. Partnering with a local university, which can provide statistical and evaluative advice, is suggested. Having clear objectives for your system upfront can also help when you get to the evaluation stage.
You should also prepare the implementation team for an evaluation’s range of possible outcomes. In a number of cases, recorded crime has increased, but as stated earlier, this does not necessarily mean crime has increased. Consider the following scenario. A CCTV scheme is created to counter drug dealing in a local park. Drug dealing has a low reporting rate as both dealer and seller do not want police involvement. It is possible that much of the drug dealing in the park may stop because of the cameras’ introduction, but the cameras will also provide an opportunity for local police to spot and arrest those dealers initially unaware of the cameras. As a result, police arrests—the main source of drug-related recorded crime—can actually increase at first, inflating recorded crime figures even though drug dealing has actually declined.