The Failure of Surveillance Cameras

When it comes to preventing and solving crimes, cameras are about as useful as a pet rock.

New York City has thousands of police surveillance cameras, which really come in handy when a terrorist strikes. After the car bomb attempt last weekend, they captured an image of the vehicle driving through Times Square and one of a guy taking off his shirt who looked nothing like the guy arrested Monday.

Which raises the question: What good are cameras? The debate over them is often framed as hardheaded law enforcement types versus wimpy civil libertarians. Whether the cameras actually work in practice to help solve and prevent crime generally gets ignored.

It shouldn't. Leave aside those airy privacy concerns for the moment. Installing, maintaining, and monitoring thousands of these devices, as in New York and Chicago, costs millions of dollars. Absent cameras, that money could be spent on beat cops, patrol cars, forensic equipment, jail cells, you name it.

The point of any law enforcement tool is not just to do some good but also to do some good at a reasonable cost compared with the alternatives. It's by no means clear that surveillance cameras even come close to meeting that standard.

There are some famous examples where they have helped identify criminals—as in the July 21, 2005, subway bombing attempt in London, when video footage quickly led police to four conspirators. But a few cases, or even a few dozen, don't prove much.

A more complete assessment indicates that when it comes to preventing and solving crimes, the cameras are about as useful as a pet rock. Britain has 4 million of them, but a 2005 report by the British government found little evidence to justify the effort. Video surveillance, it said, "produced no overall effect" on crime.

In San Francisco, cameras significantly reduced property crime while having no effect on violent crime, drug dealing, prostitution, or vandalism. So take comfort: When a mugger knocks you over the head, he won't steal your hubcaps.

But if cameras generally don't do much to prevent crime, surely they help collar the criminals they fail to deter? Not very often. A review by the London police department calculated, "For every 1,000 cameras in London, less than one crime is solved per year." Average cost for cracking a case: $30,000.

Chicago police say the cameras have produced 4,000 arrests since 2006. That sounds like a lot, but it works out to only about 1 in 200 arrests. And for 10,000 cameras, 4,000 arrests is not really a spectacular haul.

In San Francisco, the results have been even less impressive. In the first three years after the city installed cameras, they helped police charge suspects in a grand total of six cases.

No one doubts that if you provide conspicuous video monitoring of high-crime spots, it can have a wholesome effect—though it may only push the mischief a couple of blocks away. If you want to stop gangs from taking over a corner or chase thugs out of a park, a few well-placed cameras may be just the ticket.

But just because a camera works in one place doesn't mean thousands scattered all over town will produce similar results. Anti-crime technology, like everything else, is subject to diminishing returns.

Having a pit bull in your house may keep away burglars. That doesn't mean you should get one for each room. The more cameras, and the more cops watching the feeds, the more potential for waste.

But none of this seems to faze zealots like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who has said he intends to place the devices on "almost every block." It's easy to inflate their modest benefits while forgetting they carry a chronically high price.

Privacy ought to count as one of the costs. Most people don't seem to mind the Chicago cameras, though most people probably don't realize how often they show up on a TV monitor. But not everyone relishes the idea of living under endless, inescapable police surveillance.

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  • Untermensch||

    Steve, I realize this is a syndicated column where citation isn't normally expected, but any chance you could share your specific sources for the figures you cite?

  • Ted S.||

    I was going to ask if he could stop the idiotic practice of having just two paragraphs on the second page.

  • -||

    "He"? You mean Mike Alissi?

  • Las Vegas, Nevada||

    We beg to differ.

  • ||

    But beat cops don't generate "consulting fees" and cushy jobs after retirement. Video surveillance manufacturers do.

  • Rich||

    But how else do you get to see great stuff like this?

    Seriously, follow the money.

  • Jen||

    Don't worry, Rich, we're only concerned about cameras in public places. That convenience store is a privately-owned business and can put up cameras all it wants. Your drunk videos are safe.

  • Jen||

    Don't worry, Rich, we're only concerned about cameras in public places. That convenience store is a privately-owned business and can put up cameras all it wants. Your drunk videos are safe.

  • Poontangerine||

    double reply! server squirrel? or you being......... STUPID!?

  • Pope Jimbo||

    I'm guessing some cops might not be as happy with surveillance cameras after this

  • ||

    This column is a stretch, even for Reason.

  • ||

    Wow ,that actually makes sense when you think about it.

    /privacy.crap.anonymous.something or another

  • T||

    Well, we'll soon learn what two generations of chavs have already figured out. Wear a hoodie and big shades and the cameras are basically worthless for identifying individual suspects.

    This is a classic government program. Expensive, already shown to be worthless, but highly visible. In government, it's more important to be visibly doing something about a problem than to actually solve the problem. It's the ultimate triumph of substance over style.

  • T||

    Uh, style over substance. Need more coffee.

  • Rob Molecule||

    Lyrics to "Short Leash" by Resist Control:

    Short Leash

    The cameras are not there to stop crime. They're just to make you stay in line. It's a game, catch and release. They've got you on a short leash. No one ever goes to court. They just hand out fines for their support. It's a game, catch and release. They've got you on a short leash.

  • ||

    Images from video cameras have led to arrests. They do little for prevention, but they do help to solve crimes.

  • cmace||

    Judging fom the bombing videos, they need better lighting, better resolution and need to teach the perps to face the cameras. Then it works fine.

  • ||

    "When it comes to preventing and solving crimes, cameras are about as useful as a pet rock."


    I got a magic terrorist-repelling pet rock years ago and I have NEVER been attacked by terrorists. So it works.

  • ||

    How much do you want for that rock?

  • Tim||

    I would guess that we can at least console ourselves that ten years on, 3/4 of those public cameras will be broken or stolen or charged for but never have been installed and that the union people who are supposed to be watching them will be surfing porn sites instead.

  • ||

    Similar to gun control laws I imagine that large scale installation of public surveillance equipment will have the same effect as gun control laws...that is, it will effect law abiding citizens more then criminals. Maybe that is the intent. It may create an environment of mild paranoia among everyday citizens about the goings on of everyday life. Gun control makes honest people worry and more importantly it makes them afraid, makes people fear the government. Governments like fear and they like control even better. Surveillance equipment is good at creating an environment of fear, albeit under the surface and in the subconscious of everyday citizens by the mere fact of being watched by some taunting eye in the sky. Kind of like religion and the instilling of fear for a God that sees all and hears all. That is the result of a constant progression in the erosion of privacy and self responsibility. Imagine a world where you are sitting at a traffic light at 3:00 am, and you are almost home after a long drive from some out of state conference or whatever. You are tired and want to get in bed. You sit and wait, you look in every direction and realize there is not a car insight, you take your turn and run the red light. Suddenly your car turns off and a menacing voice informs you that you have violated a penal code and that the police are on the way to cite you $10,000 dollars (so much money because by this time the FED has inflated the currency to pay for the unsustainable welfare state). The required government GPS tracking of your vehicle and the monitoring equipment at the traffic lights worked to protect you from yourself! ...It just one step at a time folks, like the frog in the pot. You are the frog.

  • Tim||


  • ||

    Just like the video FBI/CIA released of the 911 PantyGone attack--sliced and diced--so no-one knows what hit it,even though hundreds of cameras took pictures. Video released was only a car parked and did not show any drivers coming out or the car lights on and flashing-off and on or the smoke coming out of the vents. Stinks? You Bet! Arabs masters in bringing down high rise towers in 7 seconds but to stupid to blow up a car or underware. Stupid is always spelt with a U and I
    CIA set Up ? 100%

  • Tim||

    Don't forget Area 51...

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