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Neighborhood Watch Webcams

Written by Brian Vizzusi

One solution to the problem of having to do more with less is to use two proven crime-fighting strategies together to maximize the positive measurable outcomes. Harnessing the effectiveness of Neighborhood Watch with the use of Closed Circuit Television systems can extinguish some crime in public places and enhance the value of both programs if used in a public-private partnership between residents and their police.

Statistics have shown that proactive crime prevention programs such as Neighborhood Watch are more effective in reducing crime than reactive programs. Neighborhood Watch works because the citizens who live in each neighborhood are the ones who really know what is going on; thus, they are most likely to be the first to see a crime and call for help.

Citizens also see things such as code violations, unsafe street conditions and other things that degrade the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Although Neighborhood Watch has a solid foundation to build upon, it is time to think how we might reshape it to become even more effective using available technologies. An example is the increasing use of Web-based surveillance cameras by citizens to view their neighborhoods from the comfort and security of their own homes.

In some communities, cameras are already in place for a variety of reasons. In others, there will be expenses to install CCTV systems that can be used for this purpose. One of the traditional objections to police remote monitoring has been “the government” watching. With this approach, neighbors can watch over one another and only involve government in cases where there is an actual need.

The goal of this network is to increase the number of eyes and ears in the community and reduce the need for police resources. With cameras placed in shopping centers, parks, town centers and public places, criminals will be less likely to commit crimes of opportunity because of the increased risk of being identified and apprehended. With this, the public sense of involvement will increase, and the fear of crime will be diminished as citizens feel more secure with cameras being used to help those who help the police.

In the United Kingdom, webcams are used extensively to monitor public places for criminal activity. A neighborhood in London currently has 300 webcams, allowing police to watch the streets of their own crime-plagued neighborhoods around the clock. There is one camera for every 14 people in Britain. After the 2005 bombings in London, in which surveillance cameras led to the apprehension of the suspects, most citizens there feel safer because of the cameras.

Although the UK uses police-monitored webcams, they do not have a history of involving their citizens in helping to fight crime like we do in the United States. By having citizens monitor the cameras, awareness of crime increases, as does the understanding that crime problems are community problems, not just police problems. In fact, there are so many applications for Neighborhood Watch-based webcam systems that some communities are becoming very creative in how they are used.

In June 2006, the State of Texas authorized the installation of hundreds of night vision-enabled webcams along its Mexican border. Now concerned citizens can monitor the streaming video footage for illegal crossers and even call a toll-free number to report them to local law enforcement. “It’s no different from a regular neighborhood watch program,” said Rachael Novier, a spokeswoman for Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Texas is not the first to employ video technology in the form of community surveillance. Several large cities have installed webcams to reduce crime, including Baltimore, Denver, Boston and San Francisco. In San Francisco, researchers found that thefts were reduced by 22% in the area where cameras were installed.

Although webcams cost money, they are less expensive than funding police officers. A one-position camera system can be purchased and installed for less than $5,000. The cost of a fully-equipped police officer, including salary and benefits, is more than $75,000. Webcams cannot be used in lieu of police officers, but they can be used as “force multipliers.”

Having a number of citizens monitoring cameras in several Neighbor-hood Watch blocks throughout a community with just a few hours of training would be extremely beneficial. It would help reduce the need for high levels of random patrol in each beat or Neighborhood Watch area.

New Model of Policing

The new model of policing first involves developing a strong network of Neighborhood Watch groups. The second part involves connecting neighbors with neighbors, and citizens with police, through a webcam system which would prevent crime and apprehend criminals.

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, of the 18 studies conducted to measure the effectiveness of Neighborhood Watch, 78% of the studies demonstrated positive effects. Although none of these studies involved the use of cameras, the more tools with which citizens are armed, the better.

Webcams would deter criminals who would otherwise take advantage of our community members. Newark, NJ, installed 109 cameras in a seven-square-mile, high-crime area, resulting in a 40% reduction in murder and a double-digit reduction in shootings. When crimes do take place, police have a strong investigative tool to help solve those crimes.

Video evidence is extremely valuable for apprehension and prosecution of law violators in our criminal justice system. In the UK, several studies have been conducted investigating the effects on crime in public places where video cameras are installed. These studies show that crime was reduced by as much as 25% in the two years following the implementation of video surveillance cameras.

Using webcams and coordinating their monitoring by neighborhood watch groups via an Internet site would strengthen the connection of the community and the police. Citizens want to help fight crime in their communities, but they often do not have a means to do so, or they do not know how to. Neighborhood Watch members would have a strong purpose and would feel empowered to help the police in a significant, measurable way that produces results.

The cost of a wireless camera system is very inexpensive and can be paid for by the neighborhood watch groups in each part of the city. Several Neighborhood Watch Block Captains in Lincoln, CA, said they believe a camera system in their neighborhoods would increase the quality of life and thereby increase the property value of their homes.

The new generation cameras are very small, easy to install and of very high resolution. Some systems have options such as pan and zoom, which often can be very valuable to viewers and investigators using the cameras for apprehension or court purposes.

There are a number of systems currently on the market which are self-contained. This means the power supply, usually a battery, is included. A flash drive is commonly used to record activity, and a motion sensor can start the camera and alert the person monitoring of activity. Some of the camera systems can actually take photos while the crime is in progress and alert the suspects that they are being filmed by a pre-recorded voice.

Because random patrol delivers random results, having a Neighborhood Watch-based webcam system can minimize randomness and enhance the presence of law enforcement on the street. Having “virtual police” who are citizens monitoring the neighborhoods, street corners, parks, schools, public buildings and “hot spots” can prove to be very beneficial. Instead of having expensive police officers patrolling randomly, there are eyes on every corner.

When something looks suspect, the police are only a phone call away. In times of declining economies, a Neighborhood Watch-based webcam system can help offset the negative effects of reduced staffing. Other costs such as fleet maintenance, fuel, overhead and supervision can also be reduced.

Other Benefits

According to the Department of Justice, a number of benefits exist for Neighborhood Watch-based webcam systems other than crime reduction. This includes reduced fear of crime, aid to police investigations, quicker response to medical emergencies in public places, general location management to reduce fights, monitor of traffic flow and public demonstrations, looking for lost children, information gathering, and diffusion of benefits (in other words, reducing crime in more areas than just where the cameras are present).

Now more than ever, the way in which we police our communities must change. We need a more cost-effective approach that utilizes state-of-the-art technology and proven community policing strategies to prevent and reduce crime across America. By combining these two important and effective crime fighting tools, the results can be extremely positive.

Brian Vizzusi is a 25-year veteran of law enforcement and the Chief of Police in the City of Lincoln, CA. Chief Vizzusi is a recent graduate of POST Command College and is an adjunct Instructor for Sierra Community College in Rocklin, CA. He can be reached via e-mail at bvizzusi@ci.lincoln.ca.us.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2009

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