By Petra Paulson
The surveillance state has certainly caught the public eye. Both mainstream and alternative media outlets have publicized about the rapidly growing surveillance infrastructure erected in 37 U.S. cities, with 18 of these cities having police actively monitor them. The Urban Institute conducted a study of three major U.S. cities that have surveillance systems, including Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; and Washington, D.C. In 2005, USA Today reported cities mounting surveillance systems to watch over city limits, including New York City, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Los Angeles, California; New Orleans, Louisiana; and even London, England. Law enforcement asserts the surveillance systems deter potential offenders, alert police of criminal activity, and compile evidence to help identify suspects and witnesses. Civil libertarians criticize surveillance systems as an invasion of privacy. Many believe that the surveillance state is the next step towards a totalitarian regime. Do surveillance systems prevent crime? Look over these three prime examples to make an informed decision.
The city of Baltimore started its pilot program with five cameras mounted on city streets. Today, the city has more than 500 installed downtown and in crime stricken neighborhoods. A team of retired police officers actively monitor a stretch of cameras mounted in downtown Baltimore from a central room. Critics assert that criminals would simply move their actions to unmonitored locations; however, police responded with relocating their force to vulnerable areas.
Police report increased ability to capture crimes in progress, images of getaway cars, and the identification of criminals. In addition, police have cited increased ability to retrieve weapons used at the scene of a crime. Police have also been able to compel eye witnesses to cooperate with law enforcement. Despite these benefits, police believe the CCTV systems have limitations. For instance, the cameras did not always capture criminal activity from start to finish. Police assert that the scope of visibility decreases at night and in bad weather. The city has budgeted to repair vandalized and defective equipment with ongoing maintenance; however, the surplus costs more than the original system itself. Public officials assert that the benefits of increased surveillance outweighed the costs, despite these downfalls and lack of progress on North Avenue.
The city of Chicago leveraged funds to erect their own multimillion-dollar surveillance system consisting of more than 8,000 cameras. Chicago police refer to these surveillance cameras as police observation devices (PODs). The city of Chicago has mounted PODs across city streets, neighborhoods, downtown, police stations, public transit, and public schools. Chicago's highly visible surveillance cameras are equipped with flashing blue lights. In addition, Chicago's surveillance system connects to a wireless network that enables police officers to monitor city streets with real-time camera feeds. In Humboldt Park, an increase in crime occurred after the installation of surveillance cameras, with nearly 500 incidents arising in a single month. However, the crime rate dropped by 20 percent the following month and remained low on average. In addition, violent crime decreased by 20 percent or 6 fewer incidents occurring per month. However, the surveillance system failed to decrease the crime rate in Garfield Park. Residents of West Garfield Park expressed their reasoning for this lack of decline as simply a disbelief that police were actively monitoring the area. In addition, Humboldt Park has a higher concentration of surveillance cameras mounted in comparison to Garfield Park.
While criminal activity did not statistically change in West Garfield Park, the crime reduction in Humboldt Park was enough reasoning to support the installation of cameras. The city of Chicago spent nearly 7 million dollars on it surveillance system in West Garfield Park and Humboldt Park. Since the installation of the surveillance cameras, the city has saved about $815,000 per month in criminal justice costs. Law enforcement and police officials believe that the benefits of the cameras far outweigh the costs.
Washington, D.C. adopted the surveillance technology by installing plentiful cameras in 2002. In 2006, public officials responded to a spike in the murder rate, which resulted in fourteen killings in the first eleven days of July, by mounting cameras in high crime areas. These cameras were visibly marked but did not have the flashing blue lights found in the previous two cities. District residents believed that law enforcement would misuse the cameras and that they would intrude on citizens' right to privacy. The city held open hearings that provided information for public and interest groups about the guidelines behind the surveillance systems. For instance, the guidelines prohibit monitoring individuals based on traditional discrimination. In addition, the cameras can only be monitored from one control center and by a high-ranking officer.
The city's surveillance system did not appear to decrease criminal activity in the D.C. area. Violent crime and assaults fell; however, theft increased in monitored areas. Despite the lack of progress, law enforcement believe that the surveillance system provided a hit or miss strategy to catching criminals. However, police officers believe that the surveillance cameras are a powerful tool in the investigation and prosecuting of offenders. They also believe that the surveillance systems raised public awareness and the perception of increased safety.