The unblinking eye

Our view: Police report finds Baltimore County shoppers safer with parking lot video cameras, but benefits of law are not quite so clear

August 11, 2010

Cameras don't eliminate crime. They don't patrol neighborhoods. They can't interview suspects. They don't make arrests. But as the evidence of recent years suggests, they can be a helpful tool in both deterring and solving certain kinds of crime.

Five years ago, a science teacher was murdered in a parking garage at Towson Town Center, and public outrage over the event gave rise to a Baltimore County law requiring shopping centers with big-box stores or 15 or more retail businesses to install enough security cameras to monitor at least 75 percent of parking spaces.

Has that requirement — apparently the first of its kind in the country — proven effective?

County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who sponsored the law, says it has, and last week he held a news conference to trumpet a report that found county shopping centers with video cameras have seen a drop in crime well beyond what the rest of the county has experienced. Incidents of violent crime have fallen 31 percent in shopping centers with video cameras, compared with a drop of 15 percent, during a three-year period countywide, according to the report produced by county police.

The report has its limits. It looked at only 42 sites. It offered no appropriate control group (shopping centers that haven't installed cameras). Nor did it factor in the other actions retailers have taken simultaneously to address crime.

But, on balance, it's hard to believe video surveillance has not been helpful. There are simply too many incidents where investigators have used it to track down suspects after a crime has occurred. The unblinking eye of a camera captures license plates far more accurately and effectively than any flesh-and-blood witness — if one is even around.

We believe it would be a mistake, however, to credit cameras (or most any investment in crime-fighting technology) as the sole or even the best solution to crime. They are helpful, but so are such actions as hiring more private security guards, improving parking garage lighting, eliminating potential hiding spots and educating shoppers on how to stay safe.

County Police Chief James Johnson rightly credits his officers as well as private security for having the biggest impact on crime. Still, he also believes that no day goes by that video footage isn't used by police to direct attention to (or eliminate from consideration) a potential suspect.

But back to the bottom line: Was it necessary for the county to require the installation of cameras? The study doesn't consider whether large shopping centers concerned with the safety of their customers — not to mention their own legal liabilities — might not have installed them anyway.

It's notable that neither Chief Johnson nor Mr. Kamenetz, a Democratic candidate for county executive this year, advocates expanding the law to cover smaller shopping centers or stores. Apparently, the benefits of video surveillance aren't great enough to justify imposing them on mom-and-pop establishments in the midst of an economic recession.

Still, crime-fighting cameras are clearly here to stay, whether they are required by law or just the result of somebody pulling out his or her cell phone. In the age of YouTube, the power of video has become obvious enough. But should companies be legally obligated to install them? That's a far tougher case to make.

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