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Crime Cams, Speed Cams, Red Light Cams--Life, Observed

When gunshots blast through the evening quiet outside Aaron Albright's apartment, as happens far too often, the police and politicians point to those cool anticrime cameras the District has mounted on the streets of Columbia Heights. See, we're doing something, the authorities say.

But the cameras weren't quite doing it for Albright, so he filed a Freedom of Information Act request and got some answers about the District's 73 surveillance cameras.

Since they were installed in mid-2006, at a cost of $4 million, the cameras have been checked 551 times to see whether they might reveal details of a crime. In that time, information from the cameras has been used in 130 criminal cases.

Albright did the math: That comes to a cost to taxpayers of $7,260 for each time the cameras have been checked and $30,769 for each time an image has been used in an investigation.

"There have to be some better ways to spend this money," Albright says.

Now consider the speed cameras Montgomery County has deployed since 2006 (Maryland's legislature is considering extending speed cams to Howard County and perhaps statewide). A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers are slowing down significantly on roads where cameras have been placed. Also, Montgomery has been dispensing $40 fines.

The institute checked average driving speeds over time. It found a 70 percent decline in drivers speeding at 10 mph or more over the limit at locations where there were warning signs and cameras, and a 40 percent drop in speeding at spots with warning signs but no cameras. There was even a 15 percent improvement at intersections with neither signs nor cameras.

Given the powerful correlation between speeding and accidents with injuries, speed cameras seem to be paying off in a way that crime cameras do not.

But hold on. In Britain, the global leader in official surveillance of public spaces, the latest generation of digital speed cameras produces photos that reveal when drivers are eating, smoking or using hand-held cellphones -- all no-nos in Mother England.

Are we still so happy with speed cameras?

And if you like the idea of crime cameras even after considering how little bang they deliver per million bucks, does it bother you that D.C. police are assigning officers to sit at desks watching the streets remotely rather than just using the crime cams as an investigative tool after the bad guys finish their work?

Legally, there's probably no difference between live monitoring of the cameras and after-the-fact searches of the images, says Art Spitzer, legal director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But he finds live monitoring especially objectionable because "the ability to zoom in and see who's talking to whom is an invasion of privacy. Maybe you want to go to a sex-toy shop in Georgetown for Valentine's Day and you don't want everyone to know. Maybe you don't want people to know you're going to a gay club. There are parts of people's lives they want to keep private. It's much less invasive if you know the camera is there but no one's going to look at it unless a crime occurs and you just happened to be on the street."

Yes, but how much of the expectation of privacy on public streets remains when we live in the golden age of voyeurism, when cellphone cameras turn every public space into a direct channel to YouTube?

Spitzer says the difference is that this is the police, the government, doing the watching. "This changes the way you feel being a free person in a free country," he says. "Public surveillance is the hallmark of what we used to think of as life in the Soviet Union."

Speed and red-light cameras, in contrast, are less invasive because they don't show who's in a car, Spitzer says. But as the British example demonstrates, they will; we're just lagging a bit in technology.

I get to a similar bottom line that Spitzer does, but my path is different. I'm all for speed cameras -- not because they may protect privacy to some extent, but because they free up police to do more important and complex work. This is automation at its best: Cameras can record infractions even better than human beings can, and everyone wins -- taxpayers, motorists, police.

Crime cameras, in contrast, usurp and distort the primary function of police officers, which is not just to arrest bad guys but to create relationships -- to know the streets well enough to discern who the real bad actors are and who's just getting caught up in dumb behavior.

Cops, not machines, should be out on the street. Street crime is elementally different from speeding or running red lights. The best weapon against street crime is the collective eyes and voices of neighbors who insist on high standards of behavior. Outsourcing that job to the police is the first step in the wrong direction, but one that we must take to live the busy lives we've constructed for ourselves.

Taking a big step further and trying to automate that watchful eye eliminates the most powerful brake against crime: shame. No camera can give a kid the evil eye the way a human being can.

Crime cameras are expensive, invasive and inefficient, yes -- but worst of all, they're just not us.

By Marc Fisher |  February 21, 2008; 7:16 AM ET
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I love your traffic cam analysis. We need more of these in neighborhoods. I bet that, in addition to the primary function of improving safety, they even pay for themselves in fines collected.

One quibble on your crime cam analysis: Something that crime cameras are perfect at which the "collective eyes and voices of neighbors" are deeply flawed at is giving an accurate version of events during a crime.

Eyewitnesses just aren't that reliable, especially ones that have been shaken up by an event, or that convincing to a jury, especially when witnesses give versions that conflict. Sure, cameras don't see everything (or hear anything) that a person or multiple people might but, what they do capture, they capture in a perfectly impartial and replayable way that is much more convincing to any jury.

Posted by: Downtown Rez | February 21, 2008 8:42 AM

The problem with speed cameras is that they are essentially revenue-generating tools, not enforcement tools. After being photographed for their ticket, violators continue to speed away, sometimes completely unaware that they have been 'caught'. At least if they are pulled over by a live officer, they stop their behavior immediately. Regarding revenue generated by the cameras, I'm pretty sure that the company leasing the jurisdiction the equipment gets a hefty percentage of the profits.

Posted by: Beltway Bandit | February 21, 2008 10:49 AM

Marc, I have never understood the privacy issues with surveillance cameras in public. The logic that you have a reasonable expectation to privacy while in public is just bizarre beyond words. Clearly, being in "public" is quite the opposite of having a reasonable expectation to "privacy".

HOWEVER, I get really annoyed when well-off people, like you or that idiot ACLU director, who live in neighborhoods with relatively low crime levels, complain about something that will not affect you. These cameras are used in high-crime areas, precisely the kind of areas that could use full-time surveillance rather than having a cop stand on a street corner 24-7. In fact, if one cop monitors 6 cameras, then he saves having six cops standing where those cameras are 24-7.

So, I'm baffled on the inefficiency argument. The problem with Albright's numbers is that he doesn't give us any idea as to how much the alternative (having cop stand where the camera is 24-7) would cost.

Please, Marc, use a little critical thinking when people say this kind of stuff and argue back!! That's your job. Analyze, break it down, point out the flaws, and present it all to us.

Posted by: Ryan | February 21, 2008 11:42 AM

Oh, also, Marc, Albright doesn't figure out whether reduced crime near the cameras should be factored in. If the presence of the cameras reduces crime, well, then that should be factored into their cost.

Posted by: Ryan | February 21, 2008 11:43 AM

One other advantage to having a police officer monitor the cameras - they can call for other officers to go to a crime scene while the crime is still happening.

Recording the rape helps convict in court, but the victim would more than likely prefer the police stop the criminal at that time instead of trying to catch them later.

As far as eliminating crime cameras and counting on the witnesses to a crime coming forward, lets take the drag race on 210 as an example:

Estimates range from 50 to 300 people were there. How many of those good, concerned citizens have come forward to identify the drivers of the two cars that were racing?

Exactly Zero, None, Nil, Zilch. That is the kind of involvement you can expect in most high crime neighborhoods too. So don't use that as a intelligent alternative to the cameras until you can prove that it is going to happen. History is against you on that one so good luck.

Posted by: NoVA | February 21, 2008 12:48 PM

Marc, I agree that people need to be engaged in order to prevent/reduce crime on the street. That includes the cops, my observation is that the MPD suffers from severe imbalances between the skills, engagement, and general enthusiasm for the job of many of their officers. I think that at best there are 50% of the cops who are doing the good work that you hear about and getting the higher case closure rates. The other 50% are woefully incompetent, disengaged, and overpaid. Too many cops in DC ride around in the cruiser trying to avoid doing any work.
In terms of the cameras, I favor them, but also view them as just another tool of the police. The cameras do not replace the live person on the street. However, they can help just like all the other tools the police have that are now taken for granted like a cruiser/bike, radio, phone, computer, gun, baton, cuffs,...They all help, but no one solution is the answer.

Posted by: DC deserves better cops | February 21, 2008 2:33 PM

@ Beltway Bandit:

Just because the penalty arrives in a nice neat envelope a week after the incident doesn't mean that the speeder/red light runner won't be deterred from illegal behavior a month in the future.

I'd like to see speed cameras in any neighborhood where residents want them and DDOT finds a substantial percentage of non-compliance.

Posted by: Downtown Rez | February 21, 2008 7:32 PM

-Downtown Rez:

My point was that when an officer makes a speeding stop on Route 50, the offender is not likely to continue speeding at the conclusion of the traffic stop. Maybe it's just me, but I'm not going to tear down the road right after an officer has served me with a $200 ticket and a few points. A speed camera records an offense but does not stop the offense from continuing, thereby potentially endangering other motorists as the speeder rockets along the road unimpeded.

I do find that placing the cameras along 295 has improved people's speeding in those areas, but the random lane changing and speeding continue unabated just past their 'zone'. When MD placed empty cruisers randomly along the median, the same results occurred. A live officer, however, can determine not only speed, but potential danger to others and can assess further sanctions if necessary.

Again, I'm not against the cameras - they serve a function. What I am against is using them as the sole point of enforcement. They are at best a deterrent but are no replacement for actual officers monitoring the roads.

Posted by: Beltway Bandit | February 22, 2008 11:47 AM

@Beltway Bandit:

We appear to agree that most people will drive safer if they know they'll get hit in the pocketbook. But I have zero hope that DC will soon get to a place where MPD prioritizes regular neighborhood traffic enforcement. I'm in a position to know a little about these things and, for any number of very real reasons, that just won't happen.

Posted by: Downtown Rez | February 22, 2008 8:18 PM


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