Saved lives outweigh surveillance camera concerns

August 01, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - On Thursday, July 21, four bombs placed on subway trains and a transit bus in London failed to detonate as planned. By Friday, police had released photos of four suspects captured by security cameras. By Monday, police had released the names of two of them. By today, I'm guessing, there are still people who object to the use of video surveillance cameras, but they wouldn't fill a Mini Cooper.

For years, privacy advocates have raised warnings about the risks and costs of putting streets, subway stations and other sites under constant electronic monitoring. But events in London have shown that cameras also have a distinct upside. They helped police identify the July 7 bombers as well as the apparent culprits in the July 21 near-miss.

When these gadgets served mainly to deter petty street crime, they looked debatable. But when the cameras help to catch terrorists bent on mass slaughter, the civil liberties complaints suddenly sound pathetically trivial.

In the wake of the original bombings, most Americans were probably surprised to learn that nearly all of London is under constant video monitoring. With 500,000 cameras in operation, reports The Wall Street Journal, "in a single day, a person could expect to be filmed 300 times." Another 2 million cameras are scattered through the rest of the country.

But there is no evidence that the average citizen feels like Winston in 1984. On the contrary, most people in Britain favor the use of surveillance cameras. The presence of cameras doesn't seem to have made them any more or less inhibited than before. It apparently just makes them feel safer.

There have been successes in this country, too. Chicago police have 53 surveillance cameras that they place in high-crime areas as needed. "Our big concern when we put them up was that people wouldn't want them," says Chicago Police Department spokesman David Bayless. "Now, when we take them down to move them, they call and ask, `Where's my camera?'"

The monitoring devices have won support because they do something terribly worthwhile: deter troublemakers. The Chicago police have found that crime typically drops throughout a two-block radius of each camera. The introduction of cameras has coincided with a steep drop in the city's homicide rate.

There have been equally striking results elsewhere. Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm has said, "You put a camera in a location and you have immediately a 40 percent decrease in crime for six months in that area." Cameras helped resurrect Los Angeles' MacArthur Park - which the Los Angeles Times notes was previously "infamous for gang shootouts, dumped bodies and used hypodermic needles."

One reason that banks, convenience stores and other businesses vulnerable to crime use video cameras is that they know their customers place more value on the safety they stand to gain than on the privacy they allegedly lose.

Whether the targeted use of surveillance devices reduces the total amount of crime is unknown. Skeptics say criminals are merely pushed into other places. But that possibility is not an argument for no cameras; it's an argument for more cameras.

Yet many civil libertarians still regard them as a gross violation of our personal space. The American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area opposed a plan for cameras in Washington, insisting they "seriously intrude on individuals' right to privacy and have the potential to track individuals in their daily routines."

But what privacy right are we talking about? Walking down the street or sitting in a park is a public activity, visible to any passer-by. It's hard to see how my privacy is safe and secure with 100 bystanders watching me but reduced to tatters by a single video camera.

The critics often say law enforcement would be better off relying on street cops rather than video surveillance. But where is the privacy advantage in that approach? A cop on every corner, or a police team in every park, would be just as intrusive as a camera.

Like any crimefighting strategy, this one has to be evaluated on whether it produces tangible gains. But to the police and citizenry of London, who may have been saved from further carnage by video cameras, I suspect that debate is now over.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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