Philly Needs More Surveillance Cameras. Now.

Yeah, I like it when you watch.

surveillance cameras philadelphia

Philly needs more surveillance cameras. Photograph by pixinoo/Getty Images

Of all the life-changing revelations I’ve experienced since becoming a parent (translation: someone whose date nights routinely revolve around streaming television), one of the greatest is how well the British do crime dramas.

I’m not kidding about this: My husband and I have gotten so addicted to the BBC’s brand of police procedurals — which tends to feature less shooting than its American equivalent, and also sometimes Idris Elba — that we ordered British streaming services BritBox and Acorn to supplement our Apple, Netflix, Comcast and Prime subscriptions. (I know! But have I mentioned that we don’t get out so much?)

One of the common threads running through most every cop show from the UK is that the detectives are constantly studying clips from local CCTV — the closed-circuit television that often captures, if not the crime in question, then certainly the comings and goings of relevant players. This is a very helpful tool when you have just eight episodes in which to find a serial killer, but this level of scrutiny exists in real life, too: Britain is one of the most surveilled nations in the world. According to the New York Times, London has 420,000 cameras, second only to Beijing in surveillance equipment. The UK’s experimentation with facial recognition software used in tandem with some surveillance in recent years has (rightly) put many of its citizens and observers around the world on edge.

In any case, it was the proliferation of security cameras on BritBox that first got me thinking about cameras here in Philly, namely about where they are, and where I’d like them to be. I’ve started looking at certain street corners in my neighborhood with fresh, sleuthy eyes.

That might be a good place to put a camera, I think, recalling a slew of car break-ins a few months back. And there. (A robbery at gunpoint.) Oh, and over there. (A mysterious bullet whizzing through a neighbor’s second-story window.)

It’s a strange way to view a city — through its blind spots — but a vortex of the BBC fodder and our city’s current gun crisis and other cities’ experiments and the telecom conglomerate that anchors our skyline has whirled together in my head, intertwining and finally crystallizing into a single conclusion: We should really have more cameras around this place.

I SAY MORE CAMERAS because Philadelphians already have 766 city-owned recorders monitoring our public spaces. That’s according to the mayor’s spokesperson Mike Dunn, who wrote in an email that the number of cameras has increased from 429 in May 2018 to the current 766, a 79 percent increase in less than two years. “The Kenney Administration believes there is support among all our partners for a continued, thoughtful expansion of surveillance cameras,” he said.

Also, he added, the technology is getting better and better. For example? “The city is beginning to add devices that activate the cameras at the sound of gunshots.”

Some of these cameras are monitored in real time by our police department inside the South Philly-based Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, which contains a high-tech hub known as, yes, the Real Time Crime Center. There, says Sergeant Eric Gripp of PPD’s public affairs department, officers monitor the feeds, ready to convey helpful information about what they’re seeing to police in the field. They also scan license plates.

“When a shooting or robbery happens, the first thing we’ll do is ascertain whether or not there was a city camera in the area,” Gripp explains. “If there is a camera available, the RTCC can say, ‘Here’s what I’m seeing now’ or ‘Here’s what I saw.’”

Of course, he says, “just because you’ve seen something on camera doesn’t necessarily mean, okay, case closed, we got the person red-handed.” The cameras can be one of many useful tools the police might use, he says, “or maybe a final piece of the puzzle.”

Then there’s SEPTA, where more than 27,000 cameras record our stations, buses, trolleys and trains. (SEPTA’s chief press officer, Andrew Busch, says one of the big city buses might have as many as 12 cameras rolling at a time.) Roughly 2,000 of the cameras positioned in the stations are monitored in real time by SEPTA’s operations and police departments. (Busch says the purpose of the cameras is most often to simply “keep up with the flow of everything.”)

But wait! There’s more, if you count the vast number of CCTV-style cameras owned by private citizens and businesses — and you should count those, especially considering that 11,848 of these cameras belonging to some 2,264 citizens are registered with the PPD’s SafeCam program. SafeCam, which the police department’s Gripp rightly characterizes as under-publicized, allows residents to register their surveillance systems, from Xfinity security cameras to Ring doorbells, with the PPD.

Registering does not, Gripp clarifies, allow police to “key in” to your camera at any point. Instead, the registry info goes into a database that, should something near your camera happen, provides police with your contact and operating system information, so they can easily reach out to see if you feel like sharing the recording. People are under no obligation to say yes, Gripp adds.

Given all of this surveilling, it’s impossible for anyone with even a vague recollection of 1984 (or less vague recollections of the Patriot Act) to not feel a little twitchy about suggesting that more watching is ever a good thing. But let’s be real: In the hyper-invasive age of Google Earth and Instagram and colleges tracking students’ attendance via their phones and Alexa (sidebar: People! Of course she is listening to you!), hasn’t the privacy ship all but sailed? And sunk? I’m not saying this is as things ought to be, or that there are no boundaries left. I’m just saying that I barely presume privacy in my own home; I assume as a matter of course that there’s very little outside of it, at least in terms of cameras in public spaces.

But what, any rational person should ask, about so many nefarious uses of advanced surveillance by certain authoritarian governments? And even not-so-authoritarian but still racist or xenophobic people in power? It’s terrifying, no? The stuff of dystopian novels. In fact, just a couple weeks ago (on the very same day they ran a story about the inherent weirdness of Ring doorbells as a mediator of human interactions), the NYT published a story about an ominous new company that matches photos of unknown people to their online pictures via an app. (Sure, one company backer in the story shrugged, “that could lead to a dystopian future or something.”) Even London’s comparatively run-of-the-mill use of facial recognition seems incredibly sketchy: A different Times story last fall framed it as somewhat effective (the South Wales police force arrested 58 “flagged” people since 2017) and scarily flawed. (Apparently, the technology has accuracy issues with anyone who isn’t — surprise! — a white man.)

There’s nothing about this that doesn’t scream disaster. And yet to my mind, there’s a vast chasm between a simple camera and hyper-invasive technology. Downplaying that chasm might be exactly where every dystopian novel starts, but I can’t help it: The idea that Philly — a city that still runs on decades-old software, a city whose transit only took physical tokens until a minute ago — would suddenly be a city on the cutting technological edge feels … not likely. Could it happen down the road? I suppose. It’s also possible that Philadelphia could (and should) follow San Francisco’s lead and ban facial recognition technology.

Meantime, the road we’re on right now is a dystopia of a different sort. Fewer than 25 percent of armed robberies over the last five years resulted in arrests, according to the Inquirer. There were more aggravated assaults in our city in 2019 than in 2018, both with and without guns. More than 100 kids were shot. We saw more people killed than we’ve seen since 2007, and we’re currently on track for even more homicides this year than last. The overall paranoia and sense of helplessness over the loss of Philly lives currently outweighs my paranoia and sense of helplessness over eventual possible facial recognition calamities, certainly over “privacy” on our sidewalks. For now, anyway. (Feel free to cancel me when a robot is wandering the city wearing my face.)

What I’m saying is that in the middle of a crime epidemic that’s crippling our city and hurting so many of our people, more virtual eyeballs on our streets still feels more safe, not less.

AS CITIES ACROSS THE world have grappled with how much and what type of surveillance to use to keep people safe(r) without sliding into a police state or worse, one activist in Chicago (a city that’s recently added 30,000 high-def cameras in high-crime areas) told the New York Times in 2018 that law enforcement plopping their cameras all over the place “normalizes the communities to be under constant surveillance, which contributes to the criminalization of people. It’s problematic.”

A little more than a year later, CNN reported that Chicago murder rates, while still terrible, are down for the third year in a row. The number of shootings, robberies and burglaries are also down. The police superintendent cited a number of helpful tactics, including more police, more community policing, gunshot sensors, investment in schools and social services … and the cameras.

In light of the activist’s point, though — in light of the fact that I, as a white woman, don’t have remotely the same relationship with policing as many of my non-white neighbors — maybe more eyes on our streets shouldn’t mean eyes all belonging to the law. Maybe the answer is simpler than that, and much lower tech. Maybe citizen-owned cameras, linked to SafeCam, is a more democratic, controlled, non-police-state tactic that’s worthy of our attention. Maybe the city should give tax incentives to those of us who install and register public-facing cameras. (Update: The Department of Commerce reached out to note its Business Security Camera Program, which reimburses businesses some of the cost of installing external cameras.) Better yet: Maybe Comcast should offer free cameras and static IP addresses to community members who want to know they’re not in a blind spot, who see problematic blind spots in their neighborhood.

I know that my position here isn’t likely to be a popular one, but I will say that when that mystery bullet shot through a neighbor’s window last fall, most people on the block bemoaned the fact that there was no camera — not just because it would have been nice to have an idea about who fired the gun, but because maybe a gunman might have been less brazen without such obvious anonymity.

In truth, the data around cameras as reliable crime deterrence is sparse and murky; it’s easy to find evidence to support whatever you’d like to think. My experience with anonymity, though, is that it turns us into the worst version of ourselves. (See: every online comment section ever.) It’s hard to believe that realizing you’re seen, that you’re not invisible or untraceable, wouldn’t have a restraining effect on at least some would-be criminals. (From the city’s perspective, Dunn says, cameras “can have a secondary benefit as a crime deterrent,” but are mostly intended to serve as a tool for investigators.)

Either way, nobody is any under illusion that cameras are any sort of panacea for a city that needs systemic, sustained solutions to poverty and hopelessness. If surveillance is part of the solution to our crime issues, it’s a very small part. But so what? The reason I’m drawn to the idea of more of us installing CCTV is the same reason I’m drawn the cop shows that feature it so obsessively. They both feed a hope, however distant, that our world is a place that we can still fix. That there can be fewer blind spots, less victimization. That the bad guys will be outed, and that the good guys — the police, the citizens, the victims — have the tools to make it so.