Study Questions CCTV's Value
When a city adopts public-area surveillance as a means of reducing crime, it often cites the experience in the United Kingdom as an example of success. New questions have arisen about that success, however.
In an expansive 160-page report written for the U.K. Home Office, which is responsible for domestic issues, Professor Martin Gill and Angela Spriggs did not find conclusive proof of CCTV’s beneficial effect on crime in town and city centers, parking areas, hospitals, and residential zones.
Of 13 systems evaluated, six showed a reduction in crime, but in only one of these cases could a statistically significant decrease be pegged to CCTV. In seven other locations, crime increased, but that rise could not be attributed to CCTV.
Gill cautions against drawing a conclusion that CCTV has been ineffective, however. Local crime rates are always affected by many factors, such as multiple crime reduction measures, overall crime trends, and changes in methods of crime reporting. There was no way to separate those factors, Gill and Spriggs write.
They also note anecdotal evidence that CCTV works. For example, they write that police officers and media representatives credit CCTV with helping them find suspects in high-profile cases, and they say that the public’s exposure to CCTV’s value in these cases plays an important crime-fighting role.
CCTV appeared to be most effective in more targeted uses than in general public surveillance. It showed promise when used for “special initiatives,” such as when monitors looked specifically for drug offenses. CCTV also worked well when police were involved by, for example, providing intelligence, acting on operators’ findings, or serving in the control room.
To the extent that CCTV is not effective in public surveillance, the fault may not lie with the technology itself. Gill says that the most important finding of the study is that “CCTV was badly implemented.”
In many cases, no one defined the specific crime problem or exactly what the system was supposed to do. “Consequently, CCTV was installed in areas and circumstances where it was unlikely to be effective,” the report states. Other problems included spotty monitoring and improperly made or stored recordings.
The study covers a wide range of other issues, including risk assessments, design and technology, management, monitoring of images, and control room activities.
Perhaps the most surprising finding, according to Gill, is that the public’s approval rating for CCTV was higher before CCTV was implemented than it was afterwards. “The public’s high expectations were never going to be realized, and they were not,” Gill says.