In 1995, a study was conducted to determine the deterrent value of various crime prevention factors for convenience stores. These variables included how much cash was kept on site, retreat distance, police patrolling, an armed clerk, and so forth. The researcher interviewed robbers and asked them to rank the most important factors in deciding whether or not to commit the robbery. Of 11 factors, a camera system ranked tenth and video recording, eleventh. These findings were compared to a similar study that was conducted in 1985: the rankings had hardly changed. The finding was also similar to the results from a study completed in the 1970s. The top two reasons a robber would decide against holding up a store were too little money kept on site and a long or complicated escape route.
Another phenomenon that could be at play in determining if CCTV deters crime is something called the Hawthorne Effect (or variously, the Westinghouse Effect), a term coined by a study conducted in 1939 at the Hawthorne Plant of Western Electric Company. Efficiency experts wanted to determine the optimal working conditions for maximum production. Among various techniques, the researchers found that increasing lighting increased production. But there was a surprise. When they later reduced lighting levels to bracket peak efficiency—to the point that workers couldn’t see (some even brought in lamps from home)—production still increased. The explanation is a variant of the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, well known to Star Trek fans. The Principle states that “the act of observing alters that which is being observed.” This can occur in various ways. There may be direct interference. There can be unconscious bias in reading or collecting the data. There can be factors interacting with the situation that are undiscovered.
Washington, D.C., conducted a number of lighting studies following the city-wide riots in April 1968 following the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. They wanted to learn what type of lighting was best to fight crime: low-pressure sodium, high-pressure sodium, mercury vapor, metal halides, etc. The study seemed to demonstrate that all lighting reduced crime.
It wasn’t until years later when the results were scrubbed by social psychologists and criminologists that the results became suspect. Was it the lighting or was it because squad cars were parked on every street to observe the effects? Or, were police officers subconsciously (or consciously) motivated to underreport crime if their performance was being evaluated? Which played the greatest role? That notwithstanding, few authorities would dispute the conclusion that lighting (and CCTV) can effectively displace crime.
Displacement is a very good thing if you happen to live or work in a high crime area. It’s not such a good thing if you live in the area the crime is moving to. The chief question is, “Does CCTV actually reduce crime?” City politicians are more than willing to glom onto crime statistics to suggest that this or that program they championed reduced crime. When crime reductions do occur, a pantheon of factors likely causes the decline. The state of the local and national economy, for example, plays a major role.
Civil Liberty and Liability Concerns.There is another very important question that some people feel very strongly, if not fanatically, about. Does saturation video surveillance in public areas violate the right to privacy? Or, is it a Fourth Amendment issue, which governs against unreasonable searches and seizures? The U.S. Supreme Court in United States vs. Knotts put part of this matter to bed by determining that surveillance was constitutional when conducted in areas where there should be no expectation of privacy. However, the other shoe still hasn’t dropped. Does CCTV surveillance represent unreasonable search? Ever? Sometimes? Most authorities believe that the Supreme Court will continue to rule in favor of public video surveillance, but it isn’t a dead issue.
Legal liability is yet another volatile issue related to video surveillance. In our ever litigious society being a crime victim (or faking it) can sometimes be like winning the lottery. Negligent security torts are common and increasing in frequency. The lawsuits spawned by the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan were only finally settled earlier this year—14 years later. The defendants paid millions. Lawsuits pertaining to the 9-11 attacks are going to the courts now.
Sometimes lawsuits are, and will be, deserving, because there is true gross negligence at work. I know of one smallish company that couldn’t afford a complete video surveillance system, so they only purchased the cameras. There were no wires or monitors. The idea was that the sight of the cameras along the roofline watching a dark and unfenced employee parking lot would deter theft, robbery, and rape. If someone is assaulted in spite of the cameras, someone at that company should not only pay the future victims handsomely; they should probably go to jail.
Despite their many limitations and problems, CCTV systems can also be an extremely powerful weapon in the security arsenal. It is of critical importance in a post-incident criminal investigation: sometimes it provides the only clues available to law enforcement. The British success in identifying and then finding terrorists is phenomenal.
Video can support other important uses as well. Security guards can do virtual tours of a large building or outdoor area without leaving the guard booth. Some cameras can see in the dark. If you are using an access card to unlock a door on a cold, rainy night, and if for some reason it doesn’t unlock, the availability of an intercom and a camera showing you to a security guard is priceless. License-plate readers have been a boon to toll booth operators and small towns needing more revenue from speeders and red light runners. Now that technology has taken us to digital video and IP-networked surveillance, the varying applications for CCTV are spectacular. The key for security managers is to understand the system’s limitations so they choose the right system for their organization, without squandering too many resources and without making grandiose claims that only create a false sense of security.
John J. Strauchs, CPP, is Senior Principal of Strauchs LLC.