The Screening of America

Crime, cops, and cameras


New Yorkers enjoying a day in Central Park may soon be smiling for more cameras than they are aware of. The police may be joining friends and relatives in taking their pictures.

Despite a three-year, 38 percent decline in crime in New York City, and despite Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's boast that Central Park "is probably the safest urban park in the United States," the NYPD is considering placing surveillance cameras there, as well as in other city locations. A police department spokesman says it's just one of many crime-fighting measures being considered at the behest of the police commissioner, with the support of the mayor. And, one could add, to the likely indifference of most citizens to the invasion of their privacy.

At a February 4 press conference, Police Commissioner Howard Safir announced his plan to begin placing surveillance cameras (in the form of closed-circuit TV) in several locations throughout the city, primarily in housing projects and subways. By mid-summer, reports The New York Times, Giuliani and Safir will decide whether to expand the surveillance program.

And while Safir was oblique about the number and location of cameras to be deployed, one thing is certain: New York is only the latest in a growing number of cities across the country and around the world whose citizens are having their every public move monitored, recorded, and analyzed by law enforcement officials and private security.

Following the lead of Great Britain–where several hundred localities already monitor and record everything from cars driving the wrong way on one-way streets to random faces in a crowd–cash-strapped municipalities are lining streets, sidewalks, boardwalks, and subways with surveillance devices in place of police.

As these cameras get smaller and cheaper, they are also getting more sophisticated. Many cameras already pan and tilt 360 degrees, have zoom lenses capable of reading a cigarette package at 100 meters, and come equipped with infrared sensors, motion detectors, bullet-proof casing, and small wipers in case rain or snow blurs their vision.

In addition, high-tech listening devices, designed to detect and pinpoint gunfire, are now being attached to street lights in some high-crime residential areas. Display ads for these devices appear in the pages of such journals as Law Enforcement Product News; the companies offering them constitute an industry that is already worth $2.4 billion, according to the market research firm STAT Resources, and is growing fast.

While private-sector surveillance is commonplace and widely accepted–recording devices are ubiquitous in and around malls, airports, banks, ATMs, elevators, and parking garages–the trend of placing cameras in public areas for use by law enforcement is a new and disconcerting variation on the established practice. Its utility in crime reduction has yet to be convincingly demonstrated; its morality has yet to be explored in open public-policy debate.

Placing cameras in the public square is usually supported by businesses and residents whose neighborhoods are plagued by drug- and gang-related violence. Support from the business community, for example, was instrumental in starting Baltimore's Video Patrol Program, the largest such undertaking so far in the United States. There, 16 cameras enclosed in elongated cases resembling mailboxes monitor the downtown Lexington Market area. Camera images are fed into a central kiosk where they are watched around the clock. The Baltimore Sun endorsed the program, asserting optimistically that "there is no reason to believe the machines will be used to impinge on people's civil liberties."

Baltimore's experiment, begun in January 1996, hasn't gone unnoticed: "Sixty-five cities have called me who are looking to set up their own surveillance cameras," says Frank Russo, public safety director of the city's Downtown Partnership. Among them: New Orleans, Cincinnati, Honolulu, and Portland, Oregon. The Baltimore police have even compiled an information packet about the program.

Similarly, residents of Tacoma, Washington's inner-city Hilltop neighborhood formed the Hilltop Action Coalition to combat the drug dealers, gang members, and prostitutes congregating in their streets. The coalition's director, Darlena Gray, says that residents would ask at block meetings why they couldn't use cameras to discourage crime in their neighborhood the way many business owners use cameras to prevent shoplifting. Because the community overwhelmingly backed such a measure, Gray sought and received a federal grant from the Department of Justice for the six cameras currently in operation.

Three minutes away from the camera locations, at a Tacoma police substation, officers can control the cameras with toggle switches and watch the displayed images on a pair of color monitors. An officer will see crimes in progress on the station house monitors and relay the description of the suspects to officers already in the area, who quickly apprehend them. This system works extremely well, considering that the cameras aren't hidden. According to Tacoma police, drug dealers know they are being watched–occasionally they wave at the camera.

Gray says Hilltop residents are supplementing cameras with other measures to take back control of their neighborhood–from new fences to strategic lighting–and don't find the cameras intrusive. She says their neighborhood was so ravaged with drug- and gang-related violence before the cameras came that residents couldn't even drive down certain streets, and they welcome the change.

Back in Baltimore, some residents are also trying to bring cameras into their neighborhood. And that has alarmed Susan Goering, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Maryland chapter. She finds the Supreme Court's privacy standard–that your privacy is not violated unless you have "an expectation of privacy"–insidious because it allows what she calls "a creeping invasion. "When residents invite cameras into their communities, for example, they certainly no longer "expect" privacy, so there is little basis for a legal challenge should anyone object later.

Goering fears that people are too willing to cede their rights for a modicum of security, and she is concerned that surveillance measures might be abused. Law enforcement might be tempted to use surveillance for other purposes, she suggests, like videotaping people at a peaceful demonstration or rally. They might also suspect you of a crime simply because your image is picked up in a neighborhood with a known drug trade.

Defenders of hidden-camera law enforcement argue that blanketing streets with such devices is no different from having a cop on every corner. Many legal experts claim there is no genuine expectation of privacy in public areas, so the legality of state-sponsored surveillance does not even arise.

University of Oklahoma law professor Randall Coyne disagrees. The use of cameras, he argues, is indeed an invasion of privacy. Coyne says the captured images constitute a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

But Coyne's is a lonely voice: There is no apparent organized opposition in the communities that employ surveillance techniques. The only exceptions are local chapters of the ACLU, and none of these is planning a legal challenge.

Do surveillance cameras actually reduce crime? Anecdotal evidence suggests they do–at least in the immediate vicinity of the cameras. But there is reason to believe that crime is not so much reduced as displaced, pushed beyond camera range.

Police departments across Great Britain credit cameras with dramatic crime reduction, citing such impressive results as a 75 percent drop in Airdrie, Scotland, a 68 percent reduction in Glasgow, Scotland, and a 57 percent drop in Northampton, England. But Privacy International, the London-based civil liberties organization, claims the British studies are not methodologically credible. It quotes The British Journal of Criminology, which dismissed British police research methods as "post hoc shoestring efforts by the untrained and self interested practitioner."

While there are few American studies in this relatively new research area, Jeff Fryrear of the National Crime Prevention Institute does give surveillance measures a qualified endorsement as crime-fighting tools. CCTV, he says, can be effective in specific strategic locations to thwart a specific type of crime, but he is reluctant to credit the cameras with the power of cutting total crime levels.

Baltimore's business community and law enforcement officials are pleased with the results of their program and plan to saturate the downtown area with 200 cameras. Police Maj. Peter McMahon, whose district the cameras are in, compared crime incidents in a three-month period before and after the cameras were installed. He found a 50 percent reduction after installation. But to determine whether crime was simply being pushed into other neighborhoods, he looked at the entire downtown area, finding a more modest decrease of 4 percent. He attributed this smaller drop to the use of cameras, too. But with crime rates decreasing nationally, largely in areas not using surveillance cameras, this is a far from obvious conclusion.

The results from Tacoma's experiment are even less clear. Police reported an initial crime reduction in the Hilltop neighborhood after installing cameras in 1993. Crime rates later rebounded, although they remained below previous levels.

"Cockroaches scatter when exposed to light," observes law professor Coyne. "Unless we wire the country from coast to coast, it will do nothing." He also notes that convenience stores and banks continue to get robbed, even though most of them employ cameras. Gray, the Tacoma community leader, acknowledges that pushing the drug trade out of her neighborhood will have an impact on the surrounding area: "We're not getting rid of anything," she says. "We're moving it around."

But even if crime rates are not lowered, recorded surveillance camera images make possible such creative and unprecedented practices as "retrospective arrest." In England, for example, disgruntled soccer fans caused a melee in downtown Newcastle in May 1996. After reviewing video surveillance tapes, police isolated 152 faces, arresting nine of the offenders immediately. They then allowed a local newspaper to publish the faces of 80 others. In a few days, they had all been identified, some by turning themselves in. (In Baltimore, tapes are kept for 96 hours before they are erased, unless they contain evidence of criminal activity; no tapes are made in Tacoma.)

While Newcastle business owners no doubt welcomed the arrests, the very act of recording surveillance tapes can be troubling. Take the notorious case of the British video, Caught in the Act, a compilation of violence, sex in elevators, and odd behavior that was captured by surveillance technology and made commercially available.

According to a "researcher" for the tape quoted last year in The Washington Post, video footage in the tape was purchased from insurance companies, private security companies, and local government officials. It was such a hot seller that two similar tapes were shortly released. Despite reports of a voluntary ban on releasing surveillance footage, Privacy International's David Banisar says there is active videotape exchanging in London.

As the growth in surveillance continues, Coyne expects to see similar, more gratuitous use of videotapes on TV shows like Hard Copy. Already, shows like Real TV and Rescue 911–not to mention pedestrian nightly newscasts–show footage of convenience store shootings and restaurant robberies taken from surveillance cameras.

Banisar claims that British police are using videotapes to crack down on such minor infractions as juvenile smoking. Indeed, a promotional booklet issued by the British Home Office recommends the use of CCTV to combat drunkenness, racial and sexual harassment, loitering, and disorderly behavior.

Closer to home, Tacoma's cameras have been directly responsible for hundreds of arrests, says patrol officer Chris Pollard, most of them for drug violations, or drinking or urinating in public. The cameras are also used to see if anyone is violating a restraining order and to read license plates to check for stolen cars.

Police cameras pointing up and down an increasing number of city streets raise the specter of a technologically powered surveillance state. If such measures continue to proliferate, law enforcement officials, well meaning and otherwise, might be tempted to use cameras and listening devices creatively, as indeed voyeuristic security personnel and spying employers monitoring bathrooms and dressing rooms have already been known to do. It wouldn't be difficult to tilt cameras off the street and toward a window, to alter listening devices on street lights for purposes of eavesdropping, or to videotape and catalog the faces of those attending meetings and demonstrations.

Already, police are tracing the license plate numbers of cars photographed driving down Hollywood's Yucca Street and sending letters to the owners informing them their cars have been spotted in a known drug trafficking area. Tacoma's Gray says her community is starting a program to do the same thing.

The New York City Department of Transportation operates an unspecified number of cameras at selected intersections around the city to capture license plates of drivers who run red lights (the registered owner of the car receives a ticket in the mail, and, to rub it in, a snapshot of the car). While a spokesman wouldn't disclose the number or location of cameras, he says they are expanding the program and that people from all over the world are calling, asking how to start their own systems.

Legal experts say surveillance technology is ahead of the law, and they expect privacy issues to be fought, if not resolved, in the courts. But if cameras are coming, Privacy Journal editor Robert Ellis Smith offers a few guidelines to limit the invasiveness of both private and public surveillance: Publicly announce that surveillance is taking place; articulate the reason for such surveillance (if the reason disappears, so, presumably, should the surveillance); view cameras as a temporary measure; if recording surveillance tapes, erase them if they don't contain evidence of criminal activity; and monitor those private security guards charged with watching dressing rooms and bathrooms to protect privacy.

In the meantime, smile. The chances are increasingly high that someone is watching.

Brian J. Taylor (bjtaylor@interport.net), a writer and Internet consultant in New York City, is REASON's Webmaster.