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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