Let’s take a look at the issue of video surveillance (also called closed circuit television, or CCTV) as it’s connected to the attempted car bombing in Times Square on May 1. US cities are increasingly using camera surveillance systems, though their security benefits are questionable. I have spoken about the fact that CCTV systems are neither effective nor cost-effective.
What happened in New York on Saturday is what happened in the attempted bombings in London in 2007 – vigilant people saw smoke in the car and contacted police. That is how law enforcement learned of the threat – not through camera surveillance systems that blanket London and are plentiful in New York.
Camera surveillance systems can have some benefits in tracking down suspects after an attack, but if you ask people what they want to spend money on — stopping an attack before it happens or catching the criminals after — the majority will say that they want the police to stop an attack from occurring, to protect people from harm. Having more trained police on the ground, in communities, interacting with concerned residents, building relationships and being there to react when there is a problem is much more useful for stopping an attack than pulling officers off the streets to sit watching surveillance footage.
Pumping the millions of dollars earmarked for surveillance technology into underfunded police departments would improve our chances of stopping a crime before it happens – instead of having to figure out the puzzle after people have been attacked. Study after study – including some by law enforcement – has proven that hiring more officers and educating the public is better for reducing crime than expensive technology.
In February, the Wall Street Journal reported on the deep budget cuts that police and fire departments are facing nationwide. “Some cities are eliminating hundreds of patrol-officer and firefighter positions and taking ladder trucks and ambulances out of service. Others have announced they will no longer respond to entire categories of calls, such as burglaries, check fraud, shoplifting and traffic accidents involving minor injuries.” Also, “In the past year, 14% of cities have cut public safety and the number is expected to jump in the next two years, according to the National League of Cities.”
The budget problem leading to a smaller police force also has hit New York City, the site of the latest attempted bombing. “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed closing as many as 20 fire companies and losing 1,300 cops through attrition, which would reduce the police department to 80% of its 2001 staffing level,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
The Washington Post has a story that focuses on the role of cameras surveillance in Saturday’s attempted bombing; Times Square has private and public surveillance cameras throughout.
Within 24 hours of the incident, the replaying of video footage of the car and the man, later deemed a “person of interest,” would testify to the spread of surveillance networks established throughout the city in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Elected officials seized on the foiled attack to press their case Monday for hundreds of additional cameras for New York, one of several U.S. cities to champion video monitoring as a means of thwarting terrorists and reducing crime.
Yet, the attempted bombing also revealed the limits of the technology. Critics of the surveillance networks, including many civil liberties groups, noted that the cameras had neither prevented a potentially deadly terrorist attack nor led investigators immediately to a perpetrator. And city officials acknowledged that the “person of interest” — a balding man whose video image was seen by millions over the weekend — may not have had anything to do with the attempted bombing. […]
New York’s renewed push for expanded surveillance has fueled a growing debate over whether the installation of large video networks is worth the cost, in both public treasure and the intrusion on private lives. In Britain, perhaps the most video-surveilled country in the world, a top law enforcement official described the embrace of surveillance as an “utter fiasco.” […]
But in the United States, as in Britain, privacy rights advocates say the evidence linking video cameras to lower crime rates is ambiguous at best. In some cities, surveillance networks are initially embraced, only to suffer from falling support after residents fail to perceive improvements in security, said Simon Davies, director of London-based Privacy International.