OPINION: Costs are high for the unblinking eye

CCTV is always popular with politicians.
Nanjing Night Net

WATCHING YOU: CCTV can be effective but it has significant drawbacks.

It’s a visible legacy of political patronage. Television news and popular culture depictions mean that we are all very familiar with CCTV.

Both major political parties support greater use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems in public places.

As part of the $40 million National Crime Prevention Fund, the Australian government recently allocated funding for CCTV across the country.

The Coalition has promised $50 million for safer streets, including funding for CCTV.

Given this investment and the ongoing costs of a CCTV system, it is timely to consider whether CCTV is effective.

The best-available evidence suggests that CCTV systems are not very good at preventing crime in public places, but can assist with police investigations.

Many assumptions are made about public-space CCTV systems that often are not reflected in reality.

These systems have to contend with a number of conditions that compromise their effectiveness in preventing crime.

Motivated offenders will conceal themselves or offend outside of the camera range. Intoxicated offenders care little about the presence of cameras.

Some offences, such as drug dealing, can be difficult to detect on camera.

Illegal activities conducted in view of unmonitored cameras do not result in police intervention and busy police cannot attend any more incidents detected by the cameras.

Given these and other factors, the best available international research suggests that public-space CCTV systems have a modest crime-prevention benefit.

Few comprehensive Australian studies have been undertaken.

The most significant evaluation in Australia (conducted by Bond University) concluded that CCTV detects rather than prevents crime in public places.

While more research is needed, the existing research evidence is not very positive in relation to crime-prevention outcomes.

Where results are more promising is in helping police investigations – after the offence has happened. CCTV footage can place an offender at a scene, show the movements of a victim prior to an offence and rule out particular lines of investigation.

CCTV footage can be very useful when witnesses are intoxicated or when there are conflicting stories about an incident. Offenders have been apprehended and have accepted guilt on the basis of good CCTV footage.

It is difficult to defend a claim that an offender was not in a particular location at a particular time behaving in a certain manner when good footage clearly places them at the scene and participating in a criminal act.

But to ensure that good footage is captured, a number of technical and operational requirements must be met.

Unlike systems that have fixed cameras that just watch a particular entry or exit point, public-space CCTV systems need to watch over large areas with high pedestrian traffic. They need to operate effectively in harsh sunlight and moonless nights. They need to be in locations of criminal activity but not to be blocked by trees, bus shelters, awnings or other structures. Surrounding lighting needs to be upgraded to make pictures clear.

They need to be monitored so that police or security personnel can be directed to an incident, allowing a quick response. Footage needs to be of a quality that can be used in court and stored long enough for police to be able to access it during their investigation.

A fully functioning public-space CCTV system is expensive. Not just expensive to install, but to maintain. While initial funds might come from the Australian government, it is often the local council that is then responsible for the ongoing management of the system. The biggest ongoing costs come from monitoring the cameras.

Having a person or people watching the cameras 24 hours a day, seven days a week is a costly exercise. Over the life of a system, these ongoing costs will add up.

Large councils will often spend more than a million dollars each year on running their CCTV system.

Once a system is installed, it is very difficult to remove. Even if there are substantial falls in crime in the area, local politicians will be unwilling to shelve the system.

There is always pressure to expand the system, with requests for more cameras to be added. Additional cameras mean allocating extra resources. When political parties throw money at these systems, it is rarely recurrent funding. Once the election is over, it will be ratepayers that cover the ongoing costs for decades to come. This should make us stop and think hard about the merits of CCTV in public places.

Garner Clancey is a lecturer in criminology at Sydney University.

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