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Focus on CCTV's Value

IF THERE WERE a security equivalent to the age-old philosophical question “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound,” it might be, “If CCTV is there and no crime occurs, did the camera deter it?”

Jerry H. Ratcliffe, an associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University, has sifted through dozens of studies on the effectiveness of CCTV in an effort to get an answer. His findings are presented in an article that is another in a series that comprises the Department of Justice’s problem-oriented guides for police.

Ratcliffe concludes that the data support some limited findings, such as CCTV is better at combating property crime than violent crime, and CCTV works best in small, well-defined areas such as parking lots. But he says that the studies do not offer proof that CCTV significantly reduces crime.

There are several reasons why the data cannot support that conclusion, he says. They include the following: CCTV usage is often grouped with other deterrents, crime rates vary, offenders may not be aware of the system, and crime may be displaced rather than prevented.

His guide discusses the various considerations involving use of public-area surveillance, such as who and what should be watched, how public concerns should be addressed, who owns the images, and who will operate the system.

The guide also summarizes almost 30 public CCTV programs in effect at some time between 1987 and 2005, most in the United Kingdom, and assesses the research methodology. A CCTV program in Cincinnati, whose methodology Ratcliffe calls “strong,” showed mixed results and some displacement of crime, while an implementation in Japan that showed a “substantial reduction in crime within 50 meters of cameras” is characterized as having only an “adequate” methodology. In a case in which crime reduction was significant—in King’s Lynn, United Kingdom—the design of the study was decried as weak.