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Video Policing

Written by Al Maroney

Imagine an officer sitting at a console in a dimly lit room whose attention is caught by a person who appears to be following the path of a young child. The officer focuses his attention to the person as the child turns a corner and the older male does the same. She alerts a nearby dispatcher to start a patrol unit to the area as she continues to observe the unfolding situation.

How valuable is this “head start” law enforcement has been given by virtue of closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV)? What if the person was in the process of abducting the child? What if the person was a sex offender casing his prey? More important, what if the child were yours? CCTV has extraordinary potential in not only identifying predators who continue to terrorize and victimize our communities, but would serve as a deterrent to crime also.

For decades, law enforcement has been using innovative technology to assist in reducing crime as well as to aid officers and civilian employees in completing their work more efficiently. These technological advances include computer-aided dispatch, computers in patrol vehicles, forensic analysis and cameras in patrol cars that monitor the actions of the officer during traffic stops. Closed Circuit Video Television (CCTV) surveillance cameras already capture many of us as we venture throughout our daily tasks in public.

They are silent, they don’t attract our attention, and they never blink. The use of video cameras as a crime deterrent has been used in Great Britain since 1961 when black and white cameras were installed in the London Underground railway system. Here in the United States, the effectiveness of this technology for private business settings demonstrates its potential monumental significance for safety in our neighborhoods. However, the task of using video cameras in residential neighborhoods will be a matter of not only funding, but a task of obtaining social acceptance in those areas.

Historical Perspective

Video surveillance cameras are not new to our society and they have been increasingly used in everyday settings. Citizens are already unknowingly observed dozens of times every day in most commercial establishments. Putting cameras in the streets appears to be the next logical and reasonable application of this technology as an additional safety measure for our residents.

In London, these systems integrate state-of-the-art equipment with remarkable resolution and infrared nighttime capability. They record camera images to use in criminal prosecution and/or police investigations. The systems include sophisticated computer-assisted scanning operations, motion detection facilities and zoom features. They can often track an individual through town day or night from a single control room that creates a full profile of contacts and activities undertaken by the individual(s).

Britain has more CCTV systems specifically to monitor the behavior of its citizens in public places than any other capitalist nation. They also credit video monitoring technology for having more impact on the evolution of law enforcement than any other technology in the past two decades. Originally installed around Britain to deter burglary, assault and car theft, most camera systems have been used to combat “anti-social behavior,” including many minor offenses such as littering, urinating in public, traffic violations, obstruction, drunkenness and evading meters in parking lots.

During the investigation into the attack on the Admiral Duncan pub (a gay bar in London) by a neo-Nazi group in 1993, the police started by collecting all of the video recordings made in the area. The investigators spotted a subject with a blue duffel bag like the one they knew the bomb was in. Shortly afterward, they saw the same man without the blue bag.

Investigators then accessed London Underground Railway cameras and found the same man and were able to get a high-definition shot of his face. The camera shot was broadcast on national TV, and the suspect was identified and prosecuted. The same surveillance systems, common in London’s rail system, are also providing identifying information on those responsible for the recent bombing attacks there in July of 2005.

In the United States, the City of Los Angeles is undertaking this effort with little public debate. Cameras will soon focus their eyes on one of the world’s most famous streets, Hollywood Boulevard, and there are plans for 64 more on Hollywood, Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards as well as Western Avenue.

The Hollywood area cameras are the beginning of what some city officials hope will be a wave of virtual law enforcement that will help the understaffed LAPD investigate and deter crime from the San Fernando Valley to South Los Angeles. The cameras can pan, tilt and zoom by the use of a joystick controlled by an officer and are capable of seeing every inch of a city block.

Costs for these employees are not factored into the purchase price of the CCTV systems. However, they may be a “force multiplier” by allowing LAPD to reallocate personnel based on the presence of the cameras. Police will also have the capability of searching recordings that are digitally stored, possibly creating a scenario where detectives rely on visual evidence to shorten the time it will take them to solve crimes, thus freeing them for other cases.

Other jurisdictions are moving in directions similar to that seen in Los Angeles. Consider these recent developments across the nation. Chicago now has at least 2,000 surveillance cameras across its neighborhoods, after leaders last year launched an ambitious project at a cost of roughly $5 million. Law enforcement says the cameras have helped drive crime rates to the lowest they’ve seen in 40 years.

In Philadelphia, where the city has increasingly relied on video surveillance, cameras caught an early morning murder, which ultimately led to the capture of a suspect. Police say the accused is now a suspect in an unsolved murder from 1998.

Homeland Security officials announced they would install hundreds of surveillance cameras and sensors on a rail line near the Capitol at a cost of $9.8 million, months after an effort by local officials to ban hazardous shipments on the line. This technology could serve not only as an integral part of our national security, but would serve to make our neighborhoods safer places for our children to dodge balls, not bullets.

CCTV systems could provide a tremendous benefit to all, especially in communities where mistrust in the police or fear of retaliation hampers the law abiding citizens’ overall quality of life. Many of our inner city neighborhoods are plagued by drive-up drug sales, graffiti and violence such as drive-by shootings. With the constant improvements and evolution of technology today, we should make every effort to expand our defensible space in the war on crime.

For example, there are more than 200 cameras in Baltimore, and there are 20 to 25 police cameras in Washington in addition to a network in their Metro subway stations, trains and buses, according to EPIC, a Washington-based civil liberties research center. New York City has a burgeoning network and there are also cameras in transportation systems around the country.

However, analysts say there is neither the depth nor the coordination of coverage that there is in Britain. What they all share in common, though, is a community desire to create a better quality of life through the creation of monitored defensible space.

Defensible Space for Public Safety

“Defensible space” commonly refers to architectural and environmental design used to reduce criminality by increasing field of observation and ownership. When space is used in such a way that makes people feel safe and secure in the community, it fosters the likelihood for increased social interactions—a primary source of crime deterrence. Techniques, such as lighting, fencing and landscaping, can define spaces in a manner that promotes community safety by decreasing criminal activity.

The idea of “defensible space” conjures up a variety of different images for people. Some people tend to assume that defensible space implies brick walls, barred windows, and high fences which inevitably segregate people from their community. However, defensible space actually can be applied to unify and build a better community.

Ideally, space should create a sense of territoriality or a feeling of control over personal property and the space around it.

According to Oscar Newman, author of Defensible Space-Crime Prevention through Urban Design, defensible space must contain two components. First, defensible space should allow people to see and be seen continuously. Ultimately, this diminishes residents’ fear because they know that a potential offender can easily be observed, identified, and consequently, apprehended.

Second, people must be willing to intervene or report crime when it occurs. By increasing the sense of security in settings where people live and work, it encourages people to take control of the areas and assume a role of ownership. When people feel safe in their neighborhood they are more likely to interact with one another and intervene when crime occurs. In short, the community is the first line of defense for crime control.

Although defensible space is not a cure-all, it is a good starting point to facilitate social interaction and prevent crime in communities. When strategies of defensible space are used in conjunction with other programs, such as community policing and neighborhood watches, they can have long-lasting effects. This hypothesis is supported by research by the National Institute of Justice, which concluded that crime falls from a combination of defensible space strategies and community policing.

This returns us to the question: How can law enforcement successfully work with more resistant community members who may view the concept of public cameras as a crime deterrent as another means of government intrusiveness? If cities desire to implement public cameras, then it would behoove them to collaborate with the community as they have in the past and utilize their Citizen Advisory Boards, churches, Neighborhood Watch and other key community groups to aid in the buy-in of this new crime prevention tool.

Community Buy-In

Being monitored is almost a non-issue when citizens walk into a bank or other business. There is a common expectation that the store or location has some kind of surveillance system in operation. The common thought is the business is doing it for the protection of customers and to enhance safety while conducting business in the locale.

There are few (if any) concerns for any potential violations of one’s civil rights or any other Fourth Amendment issues in these instances, so placing CCTV in other areas may not necessarily be seen as intrusive as long as the government works in partnership with those affected to ensure they see the advantages of using CCTV in a manner that will benefit them.

Certainly, there may be opposition to cameras in residential neighborhoods that an agency should be prepared to address. Some may say these cameras would be an over-extension of law enforcement’s need to ensure safe neighborhoods. Others might suggest that the police should simply resort back to the age-old concept of having officers walking their beats in high-crime areas as an alternative. This long-forgotten habit has all but vanquished except for high-concentration areas such as shopping malls or downtown districts.

Transition Planning

As law enforcement has demonstrated so well in the past, when they bring their community together to explore and analyze a new policing strategy, they will not only gain valuable insight, but also it gives them an ideal opportunity to present their view and be more persuasive. Agencies certainly would be remiss if they did not have community gatherings for the specific purpose of placing the project “in the open” and actively seeking residents to advise them of the project and to share any concerns or questions.

These focus groups to discuss the pros and cons of using public cameras should include church leaders, representatives from local non-profit organizations, businesses, elected officials, police managers, and key community advocates for safety and crime prevention efforts.

Can CCTVs eliminate crime? The answer is probably not. What CCTVs will ultimately do is reduce, if not remove, the opportunity to commit crimes. Although there is not a firm pool of statistics in the United States to show that cameras would definitively reduce crime, Strathclyde Police in Scotland recently claimed a significant drop in crime following the installation of a closed-circuit TV system in a city there.

The crime triangle theory is a basic, yet powerful concept that drives crime and criminality. The “crime triangle” is a policing theory that identifies the three elements of victimization: 1) there must be a victim, 2) there must be a location, and 3) and there must be an offender who is provided with the opportunity to complete the illegal act.

Addressing the opportunities as well as instilling the distinct fear of apprehension is greatly enhanced by increasing the most visible deterrent to crime—a uniformed officer. Adding personnel may no longer be law enforcement’s only solutions to the changing needs of our society. Utilizing effective technological tools will perhaps become the norm to help officers work smarter and more efficiently.

We will always have victims and locations where crime is more prolific. The causes of crime have been studied for years, and are generally thought to be poverty, decaying inner cities, and persons willing to take the risks associated with criminality. Ideally, we should not have to accept a decline in our quality of life based on what part of town we live in. Video surveillance cameras may be a viable alternative to increasing the risk of apprehension and diminishing the victimization rate in the higher crime neighborhoods.

The evidence points strongly that the adoption of CCTVs in our cities would provide a much-needed avenue to address the growing issues of our society dealing with criminality. This “new age” officer will be small compact, weatherproof—and will never blink.

Al Maroney is a Captain with the Patrol Support Division of the Fresno, CA Police Department. Capt. Maroney is the project manager for his agency’s e-VIEW project. He may be reached at al.maroney@fresno.gov.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2006

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