The Importance of Being Modest Regarding Public CCTV Systems

By Matthew Harwood

Proponents of public CCTV systems should stop claiming the technology reduces crime if they want to minimize the growing backlash against the cameras, says a report released today.

John Honovich, an independent researcher and author of the report, reviewed 20 studies and articles on CCTV effectiveness to generate a list of recommendations to help municipalities optimize the use of their public CCTV systems.

He says municipalities often mistakedly tout CCTV systems as a way to cut crime without making a distinction between what crimes CCTV systems can reasonably deter and which crimes it cannot. According to Honovich all the studies he reviewed found CCTV systems help prevent property crime and premeditated criminal acts while having no observable effect on crimes of passion. Many studies cite CCTV systems as an effective deterrent to theft in parking lots.

This, he observes, makes sense according to rational actor theory.

"Since CCTV cameras increases the risk that a criminal will prosecuted for a crime, the criminal will respond accordingly," says the report. "The cameras will affect the preceived risk/reward calculation."

But CCTV systems will not stop drunken brawls outside a pub or a fight over a lover because the flood of emotions overtaking participants will likely lead to a poor calculation of the consequences of their actions

Therefore, proponents of such systems should modify their argument to emphasize CCTV systems' ability to solve rather than reduce crimes. This is how many in the private sector justify a CCTV system's expense.

"For businesses," says Honovich, "only a small percentage of CCTV cameras are ever even watched. The systems pay for themselves by periodically being able to identify or prove criminal activity."

The studies he reviewed, most of which were produced between 2000 and 2004, also tended to view CCTV systems as a singular, stable technology that didn't change. Only one study done by the U.K.'s Home Office in 2005 even mentioned the issue of technological innovations. Most studies were conducted when CCTV systems used VCRs, and even when they did include DVRs, the machines only recorded two frames a second.

Innovations such as quicker DVRs and new IP network transmission systems ensure CCTVs are more affordable than when they relied on information being transmitted to a monitoring station by analog fiber transmission systems. Also the introduction of high resolution megapixel cameras helps save money as no one needs to continually operate the camera, unlike its pan/tilt/zoom predecessor. Megapixel cameras allow more area coverage while allowing the camera's owner or operator to zoom in on objects of interest and collect evidence and use it "to identify or prosecute a crime."

Honovich also said there is no reason for municipalities to install CCTV cameras on every street corner. Rather it's more cost effective to install CCTV cameras of the fixed, megapixel variety only at high-valued, high-risk areas.

The most frequent cost citation for CCTV systems in the studies Honovich reviewed came from the U.K.'s Home Office: £500 million invested during the late 1990s into the early 2000s.

Nevertheless, he says, this investment is nothing compared to what the U.K. spent on police officers during the same time period. Total spending on CCTV cameras was only 1 percent of what the country spent on its police officers.

Martin Gill, director of Perpetuity Research & Consultancy International, says Honovich's study is valuable because it updates the CCTV industry and customers about what the latest studies have concluded. The verdict, according to Gill, whose 2005 report for the Home Office Honovich reviewed,  "is that we need more and better research."


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