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    DC Police Chief Claims Cameras Cut Crime

    In testimony before the DC Council, “Dozens of crime cameras that cost the D.C. police department $4 million last year to purchase and install across the city have aided police investigations and led to a decrease in crime, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said,” reports the Washington Post. The Examiner notes, “The chief said that the city’s dozens of crime cameras, installed at a cost of $4 million, have contributed to a decrease in violent crimes within 1,000 feet of each location.”

    However, there was no mention of whether the police department has yet to conduct any analysis as to whether the crime was simply displaced from the camera areas to other parts of the District. This was one of my criticisms of the police department’s report on the cameras when I testified (pdf) before the DC Council last year. Displacement effect is a significant problem, as shown by a recent study (pdf) on San Francisco cameras. That study found that San Francisco’s 68 anti-crime cameras have not affected assaults, sex offenses, or robberies. The only effect that the cameras had on homicides was to move the murders less than 500 feet away, displacing the crimes.

    Lanier pointed to “prosecutions in three homicide cases that benefited from tapes from the cameras. In November 2007, the cameras even documented a homicide in progress, she said. That case has not been closed.” These cameras have been up since August 2006; there are now more than 70 cameras throughout the city. The fact that in three years the chief can only point to three homicide cases in which the cameras supposedly helped law enforcement is proof of the cameras’ failure to cut crime or assist with post-crime investigation, not their success at either.

    This result is consistent with various studies that show closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems had no significant effect on crime. These reports (pdf) were produced by entities such as the UK Home Office (comparable to the US departments of Justice and Homeland Security), which had every incentive to prove that camera surveillance did decrease crime.

    The lack of detailed information about the camera surveillance system in DC is problematic. DC residents should receive at least statistical information on the number of cameras secretly deployed via court order or as part of an on-going criminal investigation. The public should have these statistics so DC residents can know how often the city is secretly putting up cameras and whether the cameras are actually being used for criminal investigation. The public should also know the exact numbers on whether camera surveillance footage leads to convictions of criminals. And the public should get statistics on how many and in what way operators or officers are disciplined for misuse or abuse of the system or any breach of the regulations. Only with accurate data can there be a true evaluation of whether the camera surveillance systems are worth the millions being spent, money that is diverted from other law enforcement resources in a time when many city budgets are being cut.

    I have written about the privacy problems connected with camera surveillance systems before. For more information, visit the archives or read the book chapter I wrote about the issue.

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