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My latest Guardian column, “Why CCTV has failed to deter criminals,” looks at the London riots and the way that rioters were willing to commit their crimes in full view of CCTV cameras, and what that says about CCTVs as deterrence. I think that we need to draw a distinction between having cameras on all the time in case someone commits a crime, and using cameras at the time that crimes are being committed — for example, hooking up a CCTV to a glass-break sensor (possibly configured so the CCTV buffers and discards video continuously, but only saves the few seconds before the breakage).

There’s a tiny one-way street on the way to my daughter’s daycare that parallels an often crowded main road, and from time to time, local drivers will get the idea of using it as a high-speed shortcut. There are two schools in this street, and a lot of bicycle traffic, and I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve seen near accidents as impatient drivers roared down the street.

But the local council haven’t installed a CCTV camera there full time. Instead, when the problem flares up, they stick one of those creepy CCTV cars at the top of the street and hand out gigantic speeding tickets for a day or two, until everyone gets the message and the street falls quiet again. That is, they locate a camera where there is a problem, use it until the problem is over, and relocate it. They don’t watch everyone all the time in case someone does the wrong thing.

After all, that’s how we were sold on CCTV – not mere forensics after the fact, but deterrence. And although study after study has concluded that CCTVs don’t deter most crime (a famous San Francisco study showed that, at best, street crime shifted a few metres down the pavement when the CCTV went up), we’ve been told for years that we must all submit to being photographed all the time because it would keep the people around us from beating us, robbing us, burning our buildings and burglarising our homes.

A year before the Vancouver Winter Olympics, a reporter from a one of the local papers called me to ask whether I thought an aggressive plan to use CCTVs in the Gastown neighbourhood would help pacify the notorious high-crime heroin district. I said that the deterrence theory of CCTV relied on the idea that the deterred were making smart choices about their futures and would avoid crime if the consequences might catch up with them.

Then I recounted my last trip through Gastown, where the pavements were thronged with groaning and unconscious emaciated addicts, filthy and covered in weeping sores, and asked if those people could be reasonably characterised as “making smart choices about their future.”

Why CCTV has failed to deter criminals

(Image: Riots in Hackney, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ssoosay’s photostream and CCTV: Church Square, Bedford IMG_3569, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from fotdmike’s photostream)

5 Responses to “CCTV deterrence and the London riots”

  1. Berita Sulut

    In a case of mass riot like what happened in London, CCTV won’t do anything to deter mobs. They even burn cars in front of news camera broadcasting live.

  2. neb

    this post engages with passive vs active systems. In the example of the daycare shortcut street, clearly the street needs some traffic calming and the problem would evaporate and the local human diversity would increase. CCTV is an active system, disguised as a passive system it seems to me. The use of the CCTV car is showing the logic flaws in “we don’t need an active police officer, a CCTV can do the job of watching (and stopping) anti-diverse behaviour!”. Perhaps if the CCTV cameras were made from 1 tonne of cement and placed on the road verge things would improve.

  3. Fleur

    I am split on this one. My brother is a PC and works on the CCTV section where they gather evidence for prosecution. A lot of evidence is indeed built up for the prosecution evidence, and some trials would not have successful convictions if they didn’t have this footage.

    However, you are right, the riots proved that there are people out there who a) don’t care b) are stupid and not aware that cameras are watching them and c) think they will get away with it if they wear a hoodie and mask covering their face.

    I think in the heat of the moment, rioters just don’t think through what they are doing and most will think they can get away with it. But we must also remember that there have been many CCTV stills that have enabled the police to catch the looting and rioting criminals int he first place. And that large screens have been placed in urban centres showing these stills. Maybe it’s also a case of visibility.

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