Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Do Camera Systems Really "Deter" Crime?

One of the questions I am frequently asked is what impact do cameras have on “deterring” crime. Often this question is asked by school safety officers or others charged with reducing school crime. Since quality camera systems are perceived to be expensive they are often a controversial topic. As such, this question warrants some consideration.

After thirty years of using cameras to address criminal activity I can tell you that installing cameras has about as much of a chance of deterring criminal behavior as they have in reducing traffic violations or accidents. That chance can best be described as slim to none at all. Almost nightly, the evening news includes images of convenience store robbers caught on overt camera systems. Most bad guys know that a majority of convenience stores have cameras. But the existence of these cameras, for the most part, does not deter a robber from committing his/her crime. Generally, what you manage to get is a beautiful picture of a crime(s) in progress, often with deadly consequences. I recall fighting vehemently, early in my career, to place overt camera systems in several retail pharmacies that were chronically victimized by flagrant groups of armed robbers. I recall parents of employees, some only sixteen or seventeen years old, who threatened law suits if the company failed to take preventive measures. Operations had made standard the practice of installing a security guard or off-duty police for a week or two after each robbery. However, the robbers invariably would return once the guard was removed. Long term guard coverage was seldom an option for expense reasons. Overt cameras, then only an experiment in robbery deterrence, cost less than a guard and seemed worth the try. The end result was that the robberies continued and I had beautiful pictures of men in masks. In the end, Operations wanted to deduct the cost of the cameras from my paycheck.

For the most part, the same applies to overt cameras used as a means to “deter” internal crimes such as theft or embezzlement. In one situation I marched six employees off to jail, one at a time, as each was caught stealing beneath a single overt camera in a seven day period. All had been stealing long before the camera was installed. Each had stopped for about a 30 day period after the camera had been installed, before they began to steal again. One psychological factor in play has to do with perceived risk versus reward. After every crime caught on camera I asked the same question: “Why did you steal knowing the camera was watching”? The answer was either “I didn’t think the camera was monitored”, or “I didn’t think the camera was real”. The crook made an assessment of risk, weighed it against the potential reward of ill gotten gain and took action. Another common answer was “I forgot the camera was there”. The camera became just another aspect of the criminal’s environment and eventually was ignored.

When contemplating a surveillance camera system you should consider the following:

  • Cameras have an initial deterrent impact which typically diminishes over time, once the cameras become just another part of the landscape
  • Most camera systems cannot be monitored actively enough to net the result initially desired or expected - budgets and time constraints typically preclude active monitoring
  • "Dummy" or fake cameras systems have little or no impact on behavior and ultimately undermine the credibility of your security efforts - they should be generally be avoided
  • Overt cameras tend to shift unwanted behavior to places where cameras don't exist
  • Camera systems that are poorly monitored or improperly used can increase liability if a violent crime occurs - the argument, a "false sense of security"
  • Cameras should never serve to replace or substitute for other character, ethics, or awareness based training

Now the good news! Camera systems can be an extremely effective addition to your overall security program. Cameras will deter only if there is aggressive follow up on the unwanted behaviors you’ve caught on tape. To be effective the follow up must include a program to publicize the fact that the camera was used to resolve a case. Keep in mind that cameras can be helpful in monitoring unauthorized access to your school by outsiders, especially given the risk of terrorism. Recorded evidence plays an invaluable role in identifying and prosecuting offenders who commit a variety of crimes. Keeping an archive of appropriate duration is mandatory, especially if live monitoring is not an option. But before you spend you precious dollars, develop a thorough and realistic understanding of what you are trying to accomplish and communicate this to the folks that are funding your efforts. There is nothing worse that spending a ton of money with no affect on the behavior you are trying to address - or worse, it increases

If you are targeting bullying we advise that you use cameras as part of a comprehensive bullying program, not as the single component. You will have to increase monitoring of rest rooms, locker rooms, and other areas where cameras are prohibited and where much of the bullying takes place. Don't forget playgrounds and other outside areas. We also recommend an anonymous tip-line that encourages and facilitates the reporting of bullying and other unwanted behaviors. Follow up on reported or observed cases of bullying and other offensive behavior right away, otherwise the cameras will have little value. Last, we recommend that you administer a school safety survey that includes bullying before you install your cameras and again after an appropriate length of time. Use incident reports and other statistics to document any trends one way or the other. Don't be afraid to move cameras around on occasion.


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