Argument: Surveillance cameras do not deter crime

Issue Report: Crime cameras


Heather Knight. “Crime cameras not capturing many crimes”. San Francisco Chronicle. March 21, 2008 – San Francisco’s 68 controversial anti-crime cameras haven’t deterred criminals from committing assaults, sex offenses or robberies – and they’ve only moved homicides down the block, according to a new report from UC Berkeley.

Paul Murphy. “Shooting of 3-year-old happens underneath crime cam”. December 27, 2008 – “Joe LaPrieur lives down the street and says he heard six gunshots[…] ‘(Criminals) don’t worry about that crime camera, man.’ said LaPrieur.”

Theodore Dalrymple. “Cameras, Crooks, and Deterrence”. City Journal. October 16, 2007 – A recent study demonstrating this failure to improve the clear-up rate, however, could not also show that the cameras failed to deter crime in the first place. Common sense suggests that they should deter, but common sense might be wrong. For if the punishment of detected crime is insufficient to deter, there is no reason why the presence of cameras should deter.

It is a matter of observation, however, that speed cameras on our roads cause most drivers to slow down. The reason is clear: if drivers are photographed speeding, they likely will receive fines and, if caught repeatedly, lose their licenses. For most people, such an outcome would be, if not a catastrophe, at least a severe inconvenience. Getting caught is not in itself sufficient to deter: for example, receiving an admonishing letter, evoking the driver’s moral responsibility to respect speed limits, would almost certainly have no effect upon his subsequent behavior behind the wheel. A serious penalty if caught is necessary for effective deterrence.

The drivers whom speed cameras do not deter are those driving illegally in any case. Not only are they harder to trace than people driving legally—they are, after all, usually driving in borrowed or stolen cars—but they have no licenses to lose, and probably no legal income with which to pay fines. If caught two or three times, they may go to prison for a couple of weeks, true. But the low risk of getting caught a sufficient number of times, combined with the mildness of the penalty if they are, makes illegal driving worthwhile for them.

The problem with the criminal law in Britain today is that it neither incapacitates criminals nor deters those inclined, for whatever reason, to break the law. The crime-inclined are probably more numerous than ever before, which makes leniency doubly disastrous. The huge number of CCTV cameras in Britain—perhaps as many as a third of all such cameras in the world—is an official response to the increased lawlessness of the population. But as with so much official activity in Britain, it achieves nothing. It is para-detection and para-deterrence rather than real detection and real deterrence.

“deterrence as crazy poker game”. Not October 5, 2003 – Surveillance cameras supposedly “prevent,” “fight” or “reduce” crime. How? By deterring potential criminals from carrying out their plans or taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves by chance. A two-stage process: the criminals 1) know that cameras are in operation (by hearing news reports, reading signs the police have posted, or seeing the cameras themselves), and then 2) decide not to commit crimes in that particular place.

There are at least a half-dozen problems with this apparently simple scenario: 1) some police departments in America haven’t announced or confirmed the very existence of their video cameras, preferring instead to operate them in complete secrecy (as if they were spies, not cops); 2) few police departments place warning signs nearby their cameras, which makes seeing or knowing about them much more difficult; 3) some (globe-shaped) surveillance cameras are intentionally designed to be confused with lamps or street ornaments, and so cannot be easily identified; 4) it is illogical to expect rational decisions from people (the potential criminals) in whom one is systematically trying to instill paranoia; 5) rather than “preventing” crime, surveillance cameras — when they have any measurable effect — displace crime to places in which potential criminals think there are no cameras in operation; and 6) according to Priscilla Edwards, the pro-surveillance executive director of a community center in a “high crime” area (quoted by Chevel Johnson of the Associated Press on 1 September 2003), “most criminals act without thinking,” and so nothing, neither cop nor camera, is going to deter these thoughtless brutes from breaking the law.