Is Public Surveillance Effective?

Surveillance cameras present their unique pros and cons. In this opinion piece, John Honovich, founder of the IP Video Market Info Web site, evaluates the effectiveness of cameras for public surveillance.


While spending increases for public surveillance, the debate on surveillance effectiveness has reached a polarizing and inconclusive standoff. On the one side, a number of studies and leading thinkers contend that surveillance systems are ineffective. On the other, numerous municipalities are weekly green-lighting new surveillance projects. This report offers key findings from the 20 top studies/ articles in the field and offers practical recommendations on how to optimize the use of public surveillance systems.


Crime Reduction versus Crime Solving
The majority of studies focus on analyzing surveillance's ability to reduce crime. The general approach is to take current crime statistics for a region and compare them to the period after the installation of surveillance.


This is the opposite of the private sector. In the private sector, the majority of surveillance systems are justified by their use in solving crime. It is investigations where most private businesses find value and return in their surveillance systems.


This indicates a failure of expectations for public surveillance systems. In the private sector, the assumption is that surveillance is for investigations. By contrast, the focus on camera effectiveness being dependent on reducing crime sets a dangerous expectation that is difficult to achieve and likely to create dissatisfaction within the community.


Reducing Crime versus Premeditative Crime
The media focuses on whether surveillance reduces crime, turning the issue into an all-or-nothing debate. The testing has also focused on the general impact on crime reduction, noting different types of crime.


Widespread consensus exists that surveillance is effective in reducing premeditative or property crime. The most cited example is reducing thefts in parking lots.


The same studies agreed that surveillance demonstrated little effect on reducing crimes of passion, such as public drunkenness or acts of rage.






This fits an accepted rational actor model and the effect cameras have. Since cameras increase the risk that a criminal will be prosecuted for a crime, the criminal will respond accordingly. Common sense indicates that this impact is more likely for premeditated crimes than for crimes of passion.


Misconception of Unchanging Surveillance
The studies treated surveillance as a singular, stable technology. Only the U.K. Home Office Report of 2005 acknowledged technological change, while other studies did not discuss it.


The studies cover a broad time period most studies were performed from 2000 to 2004. The problem is surveillance has experienced a dramatic transformation in that time. It is unfair to assess whether surveillance is effective without factoring in technology.


The examples were shocking compared to today's surveillance. The majority of systems used VCRs. Even when systems used DVRs, most were recording under two frames per second. All of the systems used standard definition cameras. While none of the reports discussed the type of transmission, almost all of them were from 2004 or earlier, making it likely that none of them used IP networks.


                                      


Differences in Per Camera Costs Ignored
While most studies cited general costs, the cost per camera was largely ignored. The most cited number is the US$990 million spent by the U.K. Home Office on surveillance. However, only its 2005 study included cost per camera.


Understanding cost per camera is important to recognize changes in technology and to identify waste. The 2005 UK Home Office report said the cost per camera ranged from $13,800 to $65,300 for cameras installed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.


In my experience, the main cost is transmission. Because these cameras are outdoors throughout cities, transmission systems need to be built typically proprietary analog fiber transmission systems. Such systems required expensive transmission equipment and almost always laying of new fiber, costing thousands to tens of thousands. Today, the transmission solution of choice is IP networks, which reduce cost.


Cops versus Cameras Comparison Counterproductive
A sentiment expressed in articles and studies is the preference for police officers over cameras. While this is understandable and most people would agree, this omits a crucial element.


Since police officers cost more than cameras, a comparison between the two is misleading. According to the 2005 U.K. Report, the annual cost per camera ranged from $1,200 to $6,000. This is 1/15th to 1/80th the yearly cost for an officer, including benefits, training and equipment (about $89,000). Given the price drop in surveillance, hundreds of cameras could be acquired for the cost of a police officer.


At a macro level, a similar distortion is apparent. The articles and studies cite the $990 million spent by the U.K. Home Office over the last decade. Nevertheless, $990 million for surveillance represents less than 1 percent of the spending on police officers during that time. Even if surveillance funding was transferred to hire new police officers, it would only increase funding by a small percentage. Let's examine some recommendations:


Lose Emphasis on Crime Reduction
Proponents of public surveillance should abandon the claim that they reduce crime, as it creates debate and dissension. By abandoning this claim, it will heal some of the major discord and allow all parties to focus on better uses of surveillance.


Focus on Crime Solving
As the private sector has adopted surveillance to solve crimes, the public sector should too. This would save communities money, as certain features or cameras could be eliminated and designs could be focused on technologies that solve crimes.


Focus on Premeditative Crimes
For surveillance used to support crime reduction, such efforts should focus on material or premeditated crimes. Limiting the locations covered and live monitoring of areas with high rates of these types of crimes will maximize the probability that surveillance is effective.


Target Crime Solving Technologies
Though historically the camera of choice has been a PTZ, systems should emphasize the use of megapixel fixed cameras. PTZ cameras are favored by security operators, as it allows them to control the camera in live monitoring.


However, PTZ cameras require a dedicated operator to use the cameras, incurring operation cost. They also are generally bad for producing evidence because they miss everything except for the area where the camera is momentarily positioned.


Megapixel cameras are a better fit for public places and crime solving. Megapixel cameras give the benefits of PTZ cameras, because the detail allows zooming, with the benefits of always capturing video of a set area. This is critical for crime solving, as the camera needs to have an image for usable evidence to identify or prosecute a crime.


Minimize Cost Per Camera
Given the advances in available technology, we should be vigilant about minimizing the cost per camera. Having a sense of what works and does not work, we should optimize around that to ensure costs per camera are kept low.


The two elements in minimizing costs are ensuring IP networks are leveraged and not spending funds on unnecessary accessories. By doing this, municipalities should be able to deploy systems for $3,950 to $7,900 per camera. Costs would drop by 60 percent or more, relative to historical standards.


Conclusion
With our experience and knowledge, we must reposition goals, modify designs and economize our efforts:


*Set goals on tasks that can succeed: Crime solving and property crime reduction
*Select technologies such as IP and megapixel cameras that improve performance
*Ensure spending per camera is controlled and benefits from new technologies


With these practices, we can ensure effective surveillance and a positive economic contribution to society.

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