Pervasive security cameras don’t substantially reduce crime. This fact has been demonstrated repeatedly: in San Francisco, California, public housing; in a New York apartment complex; in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; in Washington; in study after study in both the U.S. and the U.K. Nor are they instrumental in solving many crimes after the fact.
There are exceptions, of course, and proponents of cameras can always cherry-pick examples to bolster their argument. These success stories are what convince us; our brains are wired to respond more strongly to anecdotes than to data. But the data are clear: CCTV cameras have minimal value in the fight against crime.
Although it’s comforting to imagine vigilant police monitoring every camera, the truth is very different, for a variety of reasons: technological limitations of cameras, organizational limitations of police and the adaptive abilities of criminals. No one looks at most CCTV footage until well after a crime is committed. And when the police do look at the recordings, it’s very common for them to be unable to identify suspects. […]
Even when they afford quick identification — think of the footage of the September 11 terrorists going through airport security or the July 7 London transport bombers just before the bombs exploded — police are often able to identify those suspects even without the cameras. Cameras afford a false sense of security, encouraging laziness when we need police to be vigilant. […]
And although a police officer on the street can respond to a crime in progress, someone watching a CCTV screen can only dispatch an officer to arrive much later. By their very nature, cameras result in underused and misallocated police resources.