Police in Denver, Colo., are taking 50 surveillance cameras put up as part of security for August’s Democratic National Convention and adding them to the city’s pilot program of 13 cameras. They are also training civilians to monitor the surveillance cameras, rather than police officers. The police say the invasive camera surveillance system is “not an Orwellian type of thing,” but rather “a crime thing,” reports the Denver Post.
The police say the cameras “are an effective way not only to deter criminal activity but also to give officers a proactive crime- fighting edge and to aid in investigations,” reports the Rocky Mountain News. “It’s a tool,” Lt. Ernest Martinez said. “It’s not that panacea that’s going to eradicate crime just by being there.”
Though it is heartening to see that the Denver police aren’t selling surveillance cameras as a panacea, it is disappointing that once again camera surveillance systems are being touted as effective and cost-effective security programs. It is also disturbing to hear that the responsibility of watching the public through high-powered cameras will be given to civilians newly trained (in video monitoring and privacy and civil liberty rights and problems, such as racial stereotyping or voyeurism) rather than to police officers who we believe are more experienced with privacy and civil liberty questions.
I have written extensively about the security and civil liberty problems associated with camera surveillance systems. Security expert Bruce Schneier has clearly explained how cameras create a false sense of security:
To some, it’s comforting to imagine vigilant police monitoring every camera, but the truth is very different. Most CCTV footage is never looked at until well after a crime is committed. When it is examined, it’s very common for the viewers not to identify suspects. Lighting is bad and images are grainy, and criminals tend not to stare helpfully at the lens. Cameras break far too often. The best camera systems can still be thwarted by sunglasses or hats. Even when they afford quick identification — think of the 2005 London transport bombers and the 9/11 terrorists — police are often able to identify suspects without the cameras.
And, upon learning of the Denver police’s plan, a columnist at the Rocky Mountain News did some digging into the claimed security benefits of camera surveillance systems.
I decided to make some phone calls.
The first went to the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., which has made headlines in recent years with its camera surveillance program, mostly that it has spent more than $4 million on it and nabbed, pretty much, not a single bad guy.
This is confirmed in a brief interview with MPD spokesman Sgt. Kenny Bryson, who quickly referred me to a department Web site.
It is understandable. One of the system’s most noted failures occurred a year ago last July when a 26-year-old man was killed in a drive-by shooting in the 1500 block of East Capitol Street SE. The murder occurred right in front of a surveillance camera. A $25,000 reward was still being offered for information.
“It has been a terrible waste of revenue, and has helped criminals by diverting resources from actual community policing,” said Stephen Block, an ACLU-National Capital Area spokesman.
You can read more about camera surveillance systems in the archives.