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Evaluating the Use of Public Surveillance Cameras for Crime Control and Prevention

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Document date: September 19, 2011
Released online: September 19, 2011


This report summarizes the results of an evaluation of public surveillance systems in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., examining how systems in each of these jurisdictions were selected and implemented and assessing the degree to which they achieved their intended crime prevention impact. The study also explored whether surveillance cameras displaced crime or yielded a diffusion of benefits to areas just beyond the cameras reach, and included a cost-benefit analysis component in two of the three study sites. Findings indicate that in places where cameras were sufficiently concentrated and routinely monitored by trained staff, the impact on crime was significant and cost-beneficial, with no evidence of crime displacement.

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Municipalities across the country are in a constant search for effective public safety interventions that will curb crime and improve the livability and economic well-being of their communities. This is particularly true among law enforcement agencies that embrace a community policing philosophy, which has become a key component of policing efforts in most mid- and large-sized law enforcement agencies across the United States. While many believe that the adoption of community policing has led to more efficient and effective policing strategies, law enforcement agencies continue to grapple with limited resources and are therefore interested in employing new tools that can enhance their community policing efforts. Among the latest waves of public safety tools is the use of public surveillance cameras, often referred to as Closed Circuit Television (CCTV). While surveillance cameras are widely employed in the business sector to improve security, until recently their use to monitor public spaces has been much less common in the United States, in part due to concerns about privacy and civil liberties. Community policing, which embodies a combination of proactive crime prevention and community engagement with more traditional policing functions, may benefit from this technology because public surveillance cameras could enhance problem-solving strategies, aid in arrests and investigations, and ultimately increase potential offenders’ perceptions that they will be both caught and prosecuted. Public surveillance systems may also have a secondary impact, serving to increase law abiding citizens’ perceptions of safety and thus their presence in public spaces, which in turn may increase guardianship, improve police-community partnerships, and reduce crime.

The potential contributions to policing and public safety that public surveillance cameras may yield perhaps explain why the technology’s use has expanded in recent years. Unfortunately, these investments of scarce public safety resources are being made despite the fact that very few rigorous outcome evaluations of public surveillance cameras have been conducted in the United States. Scant research exists documenting the decisions behind public surveillance technology investment and use, and the lessons learned by cities that have employed this technology. Further, only one publication exists describing the use of public surveillance cameras in investigations and prosecutions.

This evaluation aims to fill these research gaps by detailing: (1) the results of an in-depth qualitative data collection effort to examine and synthesize the experiences of cities—Baltimore, MD; Chicago, IL; and Washington, D.C.— that have invested heavily in public surveillance technology in recent years; (2) a rigorous analysis of crime data to determine the degree to which cameras significantly reduce and/or displace crime; and (3) the degree to which the camera investment is cost-beneficial. Designed primarily for law enforcement agencies and their municipal partners, this report begins with a review of previous findings of published public surveillance studies and describes the research methodology employed for the present study. We then present case studies from each of the three research sites, detailing the decisions behind camera investment, implementation, and use, and highlighting the role that public surveillance cameras play in supporting arrests, investigations, and prosecutions. Findings from the impact, spatial, and cost-benefit analysis pieces are discussed within the chapters for each of the three sites. The report concludes with a section devoted to the lessons learned by these jurisdictions, followed by recommendations to help inform both agencies that are currently investing in public surveillance systems for public safety purposes, as well as those that are contemplating doing so.

End of excerpt. The entire report is available in PDF format.

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice | Washington D.C. Region

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