Setting up surveillance downtown

CCTV — when implemented and used properly — can be a force multiplier

A local politician thinks setting up CCTV surveillance cameras is a good idea for making the downtown and city parks safer. To help make his idea become reality, he knows he can depend on financial support from a community foundation. In another community, the police chief sees surveillance cameras working well for other police departments and wants to apply for a federal grant to bring CCTV to his community. Regardless of who thinks of the idea, it's essential politicians, law enforcement commanders and the citizens they serve work together if they want CCTV to succeed.

     When implemented with a well-thought plan and used properly, CCTV can potentially be a real force multiplier for law enforcement agencies of any size, says Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe, author of "Video Surveillance of Public Places," a guide funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (See

Cost-effective crime reduction?

Expectations of surveillance camera systems must be realistic. If they are not, the technology is only being set up to fail. CCTV is not a one-size-fits-all solution for preventing and solving crime. Law enforcement agencies must evaluate whether or not CCTV systems are truly in focus with their needs and doable in their municipalities. A 2006 nationwide Harris Poll reported 67 percent of adults favor expanded camera surveillance on streets and in public places. But in some communities, the public's concerns about privacy will prevent the use of CCTV in public locations.

To help agencies determine whether or not CCTV is a good idea, Ratcliffe says agencies must ask themselves:

"What types of crime are we trying to prevent and is there a more cost-effective way to achieve long-term crime prevention?"

CCTV can work well to prevent crime in small, well-defined areas such as public parking lots, he says, but improved lighting, increased security, and better parking barriers and control mechanisms work equally well. And, he says the ongoing cost for police departments is much less.

Maximizing the benefits of a surveillance system requires ongoing maintenance (which can be included with the initial installment) and personnel costs (which vary depending on whether an agency is monitoring video 24/7 or only looking at the video after a crime has occurred).

Rather than looking at CCTV as the only tool available to prevent all crime, Ratcliffe, an associate professor with the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, says law enforcement agencies should review a range of crime prevention tactics.

Conversely, he points out a misconception exists among law enforcement that CCTV cameras don't do a lot of good. Ratcliffe explains why cameras can be effective: When offenders know the cameras are there, they realize that if they commit a crime, they will be caught on video; and the risk of capture outweighs the benefits of the crime.

Another misconception is that cameras just move crime around the corner from where a camera is installed. That generally is not the case, he says.

"The research suggests that if you put a camera on a corner, the benefits of that camera can often spread to surrounding streets the camera can't see [because the offender is not necessarily aware of that]," he says.

A diffusion of benefits is more likely than displacement, he says, although displacement can be beneficial, too.

"If you prevent offenders from committing crime at their favorite, chosen location, they may go somewhere else," explains Ratcliffe, who publishes and lectures on environmental criminology. "But if they go to their second choice, they may not be able to commit as much crime. If you move them from their second location to their next choice, they may commit even less crime there, so you can actually reduce crime."

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