Surveillance: Does it offer "safety" and "protection"?


A very interesting story out of New Jersey today, whereby Edison is considering, and likely will pass, an ordinance that would require 24-hour businesses to install surveillance equipment. So, first, yay for the security industry. I'm sure you guys all support this idea whole-heartedly. Nothing wrong with regulations that mandate people buy your stuff. That I understand. But, is the reasoning behind this bill based in reality? The mayor says this:

“This is not only an Edison issue. This safety precaution should be required in every Middlesex County community. It’s just as necessary in East Brunswick, North Brunswick and South Amboy as it is in Edison, Metuchen or Woodbridge,” said Tomaro. “Unfortunately, no community is immune from these types of crimes.”

Bold emphasis mine. Is video surveillance a "safety precaution"? I don't think so. But let's hear the mayor's reasoning.

“Criminals would be less likely to target gas stations and other all-night businesses if they know their photograph and video-evidence will be in police officers’ hands within minutes of the crime,” said Tomaro. “My hope is for every town in Middlesex County to follow Edison’s lead.”

Looks like Tomaro is the mayor of Wrongtown. First, there's not a ton of evidence that video surveillance is a deterrent. It's true this report from 1997 says "the data suggest that CCTV video surveillance is successful in reducing and preventing crimes," but here's a research paper you can buy that finds: "The accepted existence of the cameras in such locations has not led to a decrease in robberies in most studies." And the Independent quotes plenty of people who are in law enforcement and don't think CCTV is a deterrent, including Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, head of the Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office (Viido) at New Scotland Yard: "It's been an utter fiasco: only 3 per cent of crimes were solved by CCTV. There's no fear of CCTV. Why don't people fear it? (They think) the cameras are not working." Here's more from that Independent article:

Dover council introduced CCTV in 1993. After 12 years, they found that burglary in the areas covered had halved, car crime was down 87 per cent, but public disorder and crimes of violence had almost trebled. A study in Gillingham, also in Kent, concluded that crime in the High Street had fallen by a third five years after CCTV was installed, while it was static in areas where there was no CCTV. But possibly the most authoritative study – and the one most often quoted by critics of CCTV – was conducted for the Home Office in 2004 by a team from Leicester University, headed by Professor Martin Gill. They examined 14 CCTV systems, and found that only one had really cut crime. That was in a car park. The others, they concluded "had no overall effect on crime."

So, maybe a mixed bag - and this discussion has been had all over the place and by lots of people, so I'm not meaning for this to be the authoritative statement on this question of whether surveillance is a deterrent, but we can at least surmise this much: There's no way the evidence is so conclusive that we should actually FINE people who choose not to invest in video surveillance, as this ordinance would:

The measure authorizes police to issue fines from $250 to $1,000 to businesses that do not comply or fail to maintain an operable surveillance system. Violations could also result in revocation of the town-issued business license.

Here's my take: The people who are perpetrating these crimes are fairly obviously not rational thinkers - they're mostly meth heads who need money to get high. They don't case the joint. They don't put together elaborate plans. They run into the store and whack people on the head and take the cash and run away. People rob banks ALL THE TIME. Do you know of a bank that's not equipped with video cameras? And it's not like it's all that difficult to make sure your picture doesn't make it into the hands of the authorities. It's called wearing a mask. Or even, a low-slung baseball cap. But that's beside the point. I actually believe that having video cameras will make you more likely to catch a robber after the fact. But just because you're thinking rationally doesn't mean the robber is thinking rationally. They're going to rob your gas station anyway. Not to mention: Has the mayor looked into whether the string of gas station robberies had any correlation with whether there was video on site or not?

Eleven Edison gas stations have been robbed since last May and robbers have struck other all-night businesses in nearby towns. Tomaro said he drafted the ordinance after recent incidents on: o April 24, when a Route 1 gas station attendant was hit in the head with a metal rod during a robbery in the early morning hours. o April 22, a knife-wielding man robbed a King Georges Post Road gas station in Fords and then pulled out a handgun when the attendant chased him. o April 15, an attendant at a Metuchen gas station grappled with two robbers and was hit in the head with a metal object during a nighttime robbery. o April 5, two bat-wielding men in ski masks choked an attendant at Route 1 gas station in Edison before they robbed him.

Did those places have video systems or not? Seems like that's kind of an important piece of this discussion, no? But also, what the hell are these attendants doing? Just hand over the money, people. How much cash could you possibly have on hand. Does anyone even pay cash anymore? And, while we're at it, maybe New Jersey could get rid of the stupid law that doesn't allow me to fill my own gas tank? Damn that's dumb. Why wouldn't you just make panic alarms mandatory or something? That I could see leading to some actual captures and robberies stopped. Or how about cages around all cash-handling areas? That would seem to stop crime. But video surveillance? I'm thinking not. Further, why not go the other way? Why not offer tax breaks for those who choose to invest in surveillance, rather than fining those who do not? Smells like a cash play and a pandering to those concerned about a rash of crimes looking for someone to "do something" to me, and not a real concern for people's safety.


[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sam_Pfeifle. Sam_Pfeifle said: Jersey town to mandate surveillance due to "safety" concerns? Smells fishy: [...]


You mentioned something key that I almost never hear spoken in relation to effectiveness of surveillance solutions - and the expectation level of end-users: Thinking like a criminal.

How would a criminal try and beat/game/defeat what your surveillance system is intended to do. And that ISN'T prevention (other than the nebulous deterrent argument): It's to DETECT and ALERT.... that's it.

If your surveillance cameras can't shoot water cannons, drop steel cages over vulnerable items, etc when it detects badness, then how can anyone say they PREVENT anything? Wrongville has a large contingent of City Councilpersons and Precinct Chiefs.

P.S. I wonder if the mayor has surveillance at his home.... and whom may have recently installed it? :)