Contrarian: The Surveillance Scam


If you’re the typical Philadelphia murderer, you’re a 23-year-old black male, you live in North Philadelphia, and the person you’re planning to take out is a 19-year-old black male who also lives in North Philadelphia. He has disrespected you, probably in public, and your semi-automatic pistol is going to settle things.

Let’s also say your target is standing on a street corner. If, on that same corner, there is a blue light indicating the presence of a police security camera, it won’t matter to you that the bleary-eyed officer at the Roundhouse assigned to watch the monitor may have nodded off, gone to the bathroom, taken a cell-phone call, or otherwise been moved to distraction by the spirit-crushing boredom of his or her job. The effects of these cameras have been studied exhaustively, and what you will do is almost certain.

You will wait till your victim walks out of the camera’s field of vision, and you will kill him there.

Surveillance cameras are the latest initiative to bring down crime in Philadelphia, though, curiously, it’s not a police department program. This is a city government initiative, meaning it’s from the folks who gave us pay-to-play and the non-development of Penn’s Landing. More than $5 million has been allocated for the cameras, the rationale being one few would quarrel with: Cameras deter crime from happening, and when they don’t prevent crime, they record it, thereby providing a valuable tool for investigators and prosecutors.

But let’s think about this. Common sense suggests a criminal knows enough to rob, shoot, stab and beat people where the cameras can’t see him. I decided to look into the academic research on cameras and see what the top criminologists had to say. What I found wasn’t exactly a shock. In 2002, the British government, itself having spent a fortune on surveillance cameras, funded a massive review of dozens of closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) studies. The authors found that every single study they considered that had been done in the United States showed “no evidence of any desirable effect of CCTV on crime.” (Studies of cities in Europe showed only a four percent reduction in crime.)

There was an exception. According to the report, “CCTV can be most effective in reducing crime in car parks.” In other words, were Philadelphia experiencing an auto-theft crisis instead of a homicide crisis, if the November 2006 cover of this magazine had featured a lock pick instead of a handgun, then the millions of dollars being spent on the cameras might make sense. Surveillance cameras can have value after a crime has been committed, as in the Juan Covington case. But as Baltimore is learning, that’s overrated.

Last year, with great fanfare, Mayor John Street toured that city’s surveillance facility. It seems he missed speaking with Baltimore’s prosecutors. If he had, he would have learned this tidbit: Since the violent criminals know how to avoid the cameras, almost all of the cases for which video evidence is used are minor crimes. And of those minor criminals, 40 percent never get charged, and another 40 percent have the charges against them dropped. And what about the other 20 percent?

“Most of these cases are quality-of-life crimes [and result] in a plea to a day here, or two days there,” Margaret T. Burns, a spokesperson for Maryland’s state’s attorney’s office, told me. “This is a dismal failure in terms of getting a bang for the buck.”

But what about drug dealing, robbery and murder? Don’t the cameras see that?

“Basically, you capture African-American males with hoodies on and baggy jeans,” she said. “It doesn’t give you any clue as to who they are, even if the hoodies have some kind of marking. It’s very unfortunate. … We have the data on convictions. It’s dismal.”

Baltimore’s homicides are up since the installation of the cameras, and so far the impact in Philadelphia doesn’t seem much better. I recently visited the Roundhouse and spoke to deputy commissioner Jack Gaittens, the decorated veteran who’s in charge of the anti-crime cameras. (Again, this isn’t a police-initiated program, and commissioner Sylvester Johnson has publicly expressed skepticism about it.) I asked how many people have been charged with crimes thanks to the city’s 18 cameras, put in place over the past year. Five hundred? Two hundred?

“Twenty-six,” he said. The number charged with gun crimes: zero.

He added that although the statistics have been modest so far, the goal is for the city to have universal wireless broadband, plus a massive network of wireless cameras, plus screens in squad cars connected to said cameras via the wireless broadband. Once there’s that level of integrated, citywide surveillance — and we would be the first city in the world to have it — the crime stats will plummet. He did not add that this would be happening around the time Phillies fans are celebrating a World Series three-peat.

Nor did he raise this question: Given the cost and negligible results of these cameras, why on earth are we spending so much money on them? Not that anyone’s interested, but nine years ago the Department of Justice published a guide called “Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, and What’s Promising.” Why not, for once, take something from the “What Works” column? Why not increase the number of probation officers, and have them focus on high-risk cases? Why not boost our follow-up on outstanding warrants? Or add police officers, and have them patrol high-crime areas during times when crimes most often occur? All of these approaches have a better record of results than cameras. Why not try them?

Part of it is the fault of people in my business, journalism. Most people get their crime news from television, and the TV reporters in this town barely have time to hop from corpse to corpse, let alone explain to the public why, say, the randomized controlled trials of CCTVs showing they’re ineffective have more value than a police spokesman announcing, “Crime went down at 7th and Girard thanks to a camera.”

But I think there’s something else happening. One effect the security cameras do have is to allow politicians to say they’re “doing something” about crime. What they’re “doing” might not work. But for most Philadelphians, isn’t just saying it enough?