Do Cameras Prevent Crime?

The London bombings show the promise and limitations of surveillance cameras. In the July bombings, the cameras were extremely valuable as investigative tools, capturing the bombers and an accomplice on tape, but did nothing to deter the crime itself.
by | September 2005

The London bombings show the promise and limitations of surveillance cameras. In the July bombings, the cameras were extremely valuable as investigative tools, capturing the bombers and an accomplice on tape, but did nothing to deter the crime itself. And this, experts say, is the case with most camera systems. Detectives and prosecutors love them: The devices faithfully record crimes, sometimes offer convincing identifications, never change their stories on cross-examination and can't be intimidated by gangsters. But, for the most part, cameras do not actually prevent crimes. A camera is not as good as a cop for two reasons. First, a uniformed officer is visible, while most cameras aren't. Second, a cop can react to a crime instantly. Police departments continue experimenting with cameras, and it's possible that their limitations can be lessened. In Chicago, for instance, police are installing highly visible cameras in crime-infested areas. They have microphones tuned to the sound of gunshots and can alert dispatchers. Just sticking a camera on a pole doesn't deter criminals, but visible cameras that can summon real-live cops in minutes probably do.

HOW TO KILL A COMMUNITY

When cities are healthy, they're buzzing with change. Newcomers are moving in, old-timers are moving out, new housing is built, old housing is rehabilitated, and streets that rarely saw a baby carriage in the past are suddenly chockablock with strollers. Want to kill all that? Enact a "welcome stranger" law. That's what they call special property-tax exemptions for longtime residents in the Atlanta area. They work by freezing property assessments, slowing their rise or simply granting ever-larger tax exemptions to homeowners--until they sell their houses. Then the new owner pays taxes on the full value. These tax breaks are harmful and blatantly discriminatory--they penalize new residents, who are the lifeblood of communities. We have these laws because they're wildly popular. Georgia's legislature permitted voters to enact welcome stranger laws in 2000. Five years later, 24 counties have voted them in and another five are voting on them later this year. Fortunately, they may not last for long in Georgia. Like other states, Georgia's constitution requires that taxation "be uniform upon the same class of subjects," and some legal observers believe that the uniformity principle applies to all residents, no matter how long they've lived in a community.

ARE POLITICIANS MORE CROOKED?

The rap sheets at city halls are growing long indeed: Philadelphia's former city treasurer was sentenced recently to 10 years in prison for corruption. Former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell is going on trial in September. Two San Diego city council members were found guilty of conspiracy, extortion and fraud. In short, this has been a busy year. The U.S. Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, which prosecutes political corruption cases, reports that it had secured 43 convictions or guilty pleas by mid-year. That compares with 51 for all of 2004 and 48 in 2003. But otherwise, observers say, it's business as usual. "I don't think statistically there's been any kind of dramatic spike," said one former prosecutor. The Dallas Morning News took a look recently at the Public Integrity Section and found it to be an unusually effective squad. Between 1984 and 2003, the feds obtained convictions for 20,393 of the 23,320 people they indicted. The reason for the success is that prosecutors are careful to indict only when the evidence is strong. That usually means wiretaps, incriminating documents and lots of corroborating testimony.

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