Do surveillance cameras prevent crime?

Whether we like it or not, most urban and much suburban American life takes place on camera, with very few clear boundaries that mark where we are permitted our privacy and where it's compromised by closed-circuit televisions or electronic monitoring. It’s our own version of the Panopticon.

The Panopticon was the brainchild of Jeremy Bentham, a Utilitarian philosopher and erstwhile prison reformer who set out to create a new model for penal justice that stripped away the cruel and theatrical brutality (such as Guy Fawkes received) to something more passive but nonetheless effective. The meticulously observed prisoner, Bentham posited, behaves better than the one who is merely permitted to take his or her place in the prison's own social order. His Panopticon was designed to place inmates in a circular formation around a central guard tower, an arrangement that forced inmates to live under the assumption that they were always being watched.

And although the Panopticon was never a reality in Bentham’s lifetime, the theory of designing prisons to promote and maintain surveillance still stands. Today, we have a proliferation of easy and cheap surveillance methods,although their chilling effect on crime is a high-stakes question with plenty of skeptics. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, hiring more police or installing better lighting might do as much if not more to prevent crime than mere cameras, and it can be challenging to even answer the question of what effect cameras have on crime, because it's always possible that the presence of cameras merely displaces criminal activity to other areas. (Fans of The Wire will remember drug dealers merely moving to another corner when they decide they're being watched too closely).

There is some evidence to support the effectiveness of surveillance. Washington, D.C.'s Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute conducted an extensive study that posted cameras in Baltimore, MD, and in Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park, two neighborhoods in Chicago. According to the Chicago Tribune, although the study is cautious about drawing and A-to-B correlation between the cameras and the reduction in crime, the study did reveal a noticeable drop in criminal behavior in monitored areas. Every dollar Chicago spent on its CCTV system made $4 in social benefits like theft prevention and would-be felons who never had to do time.

It's a stretch to conclude from this study that all surveillance cameras prevent crime, though. There are numerous critical variables that may distort results, and which are difficult (if not impossible) to take into account perfectly. Should property owners mark their cameras clearly? Should they be visibly "on" when monitoring? Do perps behave differently if they don't think the camera is being actively manned? How cameras are implemented can be half of their effectiveness. After all, if you have a surveillance camera that's pointed at a blank wall, it'll never catch anyone doing anything.

Surveillance cameras may deter crime by making criminals aware that they're much more likely to be caught, but that crime-solving usage shouldn't be discounted as merely a pleasant aftereffect. The New York Times has reported that the NYPD credits cameras with a massive drop in public housing crimes, and there's ample evidence that criminals often try to move out of range of cameras, sometimes (though unfortunately not always) buying their victims time.

Cameras are typically more controversial in public places where they're monitored by government employees – perhaps conjuring up the world of George Orwell's 1984, in which citizens never know when they're being monitored, only that they might be. Objections are rarer when it comes to closed-circuit cameras in places needing more intensive monitoring than other businesses, like convenience stores or jewelers. Since roughly 50% of retail theft involves employees – who are generally familiar with security procedures – it's possible that some theft is harder to eradicate than by simply putting up a few cameras. But that still leaves a hefty percentage of inventory shrinkage to be prevented, and in-store cameras can do wonders since thieves take risks into account just like the rest of us do.

Surveillance Model Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon: a model for today's surveillance?