The Austin City Council will vote on a measure Thursday that would add 23 surveillance cameras in downtown Austin.
Austin police would place the cameras in “hot spots” in downtown. Police will consider crime data, expected crowds, and community requests to determine the exact locations.
KVUE adds that “privacy advocates say the cameras are a bad idea. Texans for Accountable Government say Austin is turning into a surveillance state.” But to me, privacy concerns aren’t nearly as big an issue as the mere fiscal and managerial stupidity of the idea. News 8-Austin reports that “The cameras will cost around $600,000, but the Downtown Austin Alliance is offering to foot $250,000 of that bill.” But even $350k isn’t exactly a bargain, and cameras create ongoing costs for the city that the Downtown Austin Alliance won’t pay for. After all, they serve no purpose at all unless the city pays for staff to watch them, and even then in most settings, cameras in public rarely prevent or solve crime.
Camera systems are incredibly staffing intensive from several perspectives. First, they can’t stop crime unless somebody is watching monitors in real time and also has authority to immediately deploy officers based on what they see. So there are staffing costs for monitoring and also for the officers who will now be deployed more frequently at spots the cameras are located. (Essentially cameras usurp deployment decisions by police supervisors, resulting in an unplanned overallocation of the city’s limited policing resources.
But there’s another staffing aspect that camera proponents seldom publicly discuss: whenever a crime occurs, police must watch video footage (frequently many hours of it), usually with little benefit to the case. And while they’re doing that, they are not investigating other crimes. A London cop/blogger complained in 2006 that “CCTV viewing occupies a disproportionate amount of police time with very little tangible result. This fact is well known to street criminals.” That’s why cameras in public spaces arguably harm safety more than they preserve it: Proponents ignore the opportunity costs from diverting officers from their workaday duties.
Indeed, London is the most surveilled city in the world, with CCTV cameras covering virtually every public space in most of the city. But a meta-study by the British Home Office last year accumulating results from dozens of studies and years of research advised police that “The use of closed-circuit television in city and town centres and public housing estates does not have a significant effect on crime.” That’s not just true in Britain but everywhere the strategy has been used. As security guru Bruce Schneier wrote in a column for CNN earlier this year:
Pervasive security cameras don’t substantially reduce crime. This fact has been demonstrated repeatedly: in San Francisco public housing, in a New York apartment complex, in Philadelphia, in Washington, DC, 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 is clear: CCTV cameras have minimal value in the fight against crime.
I’ve railed against this idea in the past, but it’s one of those areas where people’s so-called “common sense” fails to anticipate all the on-the-ground realities of why these systems don’t work – even when the issue has been researched six ways from Sunday, as this one has. So Austin PD will spend the next few years wasting money and manpower on this boondoggle, but it’s much more a public relations ploy than an actual public safety initiative, and one that diverts police resources from more important crime fighting activities.
Originally published on Grits for Breakfast