The Impact of Surveillance Cameras on Crime

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Surveillance camera systems are closed circuit systems that can record and play back video as passive systems, or they can be active systems that are constantly monitored by security or law enforcement personnel, or they can be hybrid recording and active systems. In some cases sound and weapons detecting attachments are being explored.

Generally, the public facility users and private individuals are happy with the idea of having video surveillance that helps to detect or to record crimes, as they are priceless in identifying and capturing criminals. Generally, the numbers are said to support the increasing surveillance as a crime detection, prevention and apprehension tool. In addition, the cost savings and increased accuracy involved with taking human observers, no matter how well trained, out of the equation appear to be positive.

There are, of course, many complaints of "big brother" style intrusion into private and personal lives and violation of the Fourth Amendement's right to privacy. Most of these complaints are dealt with by confining the cameras to either public spaces where a right to privacy is not assumed or to private spaces where giving up some privacy to accomodate common area surveillance is a condition of being allowed to enter.

Public surveillance is the focus of this article.

 "Although no court has directly addressed this issue, under current interpretations of the First and Fourth Amendment and California tort law, video surveillance appears to represent a valid use of the state's power to protect its citizens. In this view, continuous video surveillance is analogous to a mechanical police officer. It does not intrude upon an individuals sphere of privacy, but rather records events occurring in public space for which individuals do not have reasonable expectations of privacy." 1

Public survelliance also helps to generate local revenue that would be lost when undetected traffic crimes occur. It also helps to examine traffic patterns and spots where traffic jams occur, aiding in systems that help to regulate traffic flow. Easing traffic congestion helps to reduce the buildup of smog and surface oils on the roads, which is a problem in the more arid states, where road surfaces can become quite hazardous at the end of lengthy droughts.

Socially, there is no shortage of abuse when people are caught doing embarrassing things or making fools of themselves and the footage is put up on line or on television shows. But the value of having footage of a child who has gone missing or of the individuals who were present at a crime scene or before a terrorist act far outweighs the embarrassment of those who behave foolishly in public.

When the proper controls are put in place to ensure that the footage is not misused or otherwise used to intimidate, coerce or oppress without due legal cause or benefit to society, public surviellance is here to stay and to expand to more areas, including private housing developments where many areas of the street go unobserved for most of the day.

Marcus Nieto, "Public Video Surveillance: Is It An Effective Crime Prevention Tool?",  California State Library, California Research Bureau, June 1997

1. Scott Sher, Public Law Research Institute, "Continuous Video Surveillance and Its Legal Consequences," University of California, Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco, Ca, November, 1996.

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