Saturday, December 6, 2008

Security cameras: how effective are they?

On December 3rd, 2008, a West Oakland Project Area Committee (“WOPAC”) panel supported using taxpayers’ redevelopment money to fund private security cameras at three locations in West Oakland, including one at West MacArthur Blvd. and West Street. Are security cameras a shrewd investment in crime reduction, or an ineffective waste of scarce public funds?

Publicly accessible security cameras have been present in our neighborhood for several years, with a mixed track record. A camera atop a local liquor store is credited with helping to solve a drive-by shooting, and for aiding in the arrest of a parolee violating conditions of his parole. Another camera above a local café, however, appears to be nonfunctional after two years of service, and has contributed nothing despite a persistent graffiti problem in its immediate area. Purchase of both cameras was assisted with public funds.

In 2007, the WOPAC recommended to the City Council that $200,000 be spent to fund, for one year, 10 cameras throughout the West Oakland redevelopment project area. These cameras would be at the disposition of the police department, who would determine where the cameras would be placed, and would have exclusive access to them. The cameras would be moveable, so they could be relocated at minimum expense as crime patterns dictate. Images would be recorded and available for seven days. The cameras could be remotely monitored and controlled by the police, who could pivot them and zoom in or out as desired.

A year and a half later, the money remains unspent. Personnel changes at OPD, concerns about image quality holding up in court, controversy over the appropriate technical specifications and software best suited to the goal, and bureaucratic inertia all have contributed to the delay. The latest projection is that the cameras will be up and running by April 2009. Meanwhile , several community groups have opted to fill the void by asking the WOPAC to fund specific camera solutions under the Neighborhood Project Initiative program.

The South Prescott Neighborhood Association, fed up with chronic illegal dumping and prostitution at a specific site near 3rd and Lewis Streets, wants a four-camera system that will record activities in high definition, late at night, for later review. The goal is to obtain license plate numbers of illegal dumpers, with the acknowledgement that this type of criminal activity is not viewed as critical enough to elicit timely police response. The camera, an Arecont AV8180, offers much higher resolution (1600x1200 at 24 frames per second) than do the cameras specified in the two other proposals.

The Oakland Technology Exchange West wants four cameras on its roof to alleviate customer safety concerns when people attend evening computer classes. An additional target is illegal dumping and crime in the Willow Park area, on Willow St. between 14th and 15th. The camera images would be recorded on existing computers at the school, rather than be monitored. The objective is to create a deterrent effect more than to pursue arrests or convictions. The cameras support low light video capture and could be set up for remote viewing on cell phones, but the resolution (704x480 at 30 fps) is problematic.

The West Street Watch proposes to install a single camera atop a sign in front of a business on the corner of West and West MacArthur, where two shootings have occurred in the past year. This camera would be accessible from remote over the internet by both the police and neighborhood watch members, who could swivel its position, change the angle and zoom in and out. Recorded footage is stored for seven days on a hard drive at the sponsoring merchant’s place of business. The SNC-RX550 PTZ camera offers 640x480 resolution at 30 fps.

Rather than invest in three different camera systems, the WOPAC asked OPD Lt. Freddie Hamilton if he would accept three additional cameras in the WOPAC’s police camera proposal, under a stipulation that they be placed at the three locations of concern to the neighborhood groups who had submitted camera proposals. Lt. Hamilton responded that he is always receptive to offers of additional resources; however, in order to ensure the pilot camera program can be evaluated according to the agreed upon standards, cameras should be placed at locations that, statistically, are considered high-crime areas, and only the Willow Street location meets that criteria.

The police camera program will be evaluated after one year to determine its effectiveness, and if additional funding should be provided to continue it or to expand it to other locations in the city. How effective have other surveillance camera programs been?

Many studies have been conducted in the past ten years about the effectiveness of public security cameras. The general conclusion is that the cameras may to some degree deter premeditated property crimes, may reduce injury because they result in faster police response, and assist in solving crimes, but have little deterrent effect on violent crime.

In 2002, a British survey of 22 such programs concluded that they reduce crime to a small degree. The main impact was on vehicle crime (e.g. running red lights), but there was little evidence that they prevented violent crime. A study in Injury Prevention Journal in 2003 found that camera surveillance reduced the severity of injuries in street brawls, but had no deterrent effect. Melbourne, Australia, voted to dump its network of 23 cameras in 2004 after it became apparent the system did not deter crime, despite a consultant’s finding that they played a significant role in crime detection. Research in both Leceistershire, England and Cardiff, Wales in 2005 found that cameras did not reduce crime, but reduced harm because police response was faster. It was argued that the cameras “increased” crime in the sense that monitoring police observed criminal activity more frequently, so crime statistics went up as a result. A study in Brisbane, Australia, in 2006 found that cameras help solve crime but do little to prevent it.

London has over 10,000 security cameras, out of 4 million cameras in England, at a cost to the public of over $400 million dollars. But in 2008, the head of CCTV in the Association of Chief Police Officers stated that CCTV had little impact on the level of late-night violence, and that the public had been misled into believing cameras would have a big impact. Also in 2008, a Detective Chief Inspector with London’s Metropolitan Police Force called the camera program an “utter fiasco” that solved only 3% of London’s street robberies. And a UC Berkeley study of cameras in San Francisco in 2008 found a decrease in property crimes in the immediate vicinity of the cameras, but concluded that the cameras “had little overall effect” on violent crime. Surveillance cameras have been tried and abandoned in Miami Beach, White Plains, Mt. Vernon, Newark and Times Square.

In 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) wrote a letter to the chairperson of the Council of the District of Columbia, calling D.C.’s camera program “a bad idea that should be rejected outright.” The ACLU was concerned about the right to privacy, the enforcement of social conformity, and the potential for abuse by government agencies or rogue cops.

Improvements in technology offer hope for increasing the effectiveness of cameras in preventing violence before it occurs. Some cameras now utilize software that attempt to predict and thwart crime. For example, cameras are now available that can count the number of people on a street corner. They can recognize patterns or abnormalities like people loitering in areas that most people walk quickly through, someone climbing a fence that others walk past, or people stopping someone who was walking. The cameras can then send an alert to a police officer’s computer or to a monitoring center. It remains to be proven if such software can be fine-tuned to the point that “false positives” are reduced sufficiently to make it a reliable tool.

Social networking may also increase cameras’ effectiveness. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on December 6th that a camera established at a private residence overlooking a busy intersection in that city’s Tenderloin neighborhood had become an internet sensation, with 25,000 visitors in three days. The web site ( now features views through two high-resolution cameras with live audio feed and a popular chat room, with contests to see who can be the first to read a license plate. The result is the street is now under constant surveillance, with viewers calling in crimes at the moment they occur.

Will a new camera in our neighborhood be a similar success?


Max said...

Social networking seems like a huge opportunity for security and surveillance use. Imagine if every NCPC had it's own YouTube Channel and its own Flickr page. With the rapid proliferation of video and camera phones, we might not even need to rely on stationary cameras.

JAMMI Journalist said...

The neighborhood activist who introduced social networking to security cameras has shut down his website. Citing death threats, intimidation, stalking and harassment that he says has ruined his career, terrorized his girlfriend and forced him to move, he issued a public apology to the anonymous thugs and graffiti vandals he said targeted him. More details of this volte-face can be found in the San Francisco Chronicle at

JAMMI Journalist said...

In a report by the US Conference of Mayors, Oakland is requesting (among many other things) $5.6MM from the Federal government for a "Surveillance Camera Network - A citywide camera system will be installed to enhance the Department's ability to respond to criminal activity and investigate crimes. (OPD). Funds would convert space in the Eastmont Police Station" into a state-of-the-art camera surveillance facility. Supposedly, this would create 67 jobs, and qualify for funding under President-elect Obama's anticipated economic revitalization program.