CCTV deterrence and the London riots

My latest Guardian column, "Why CCTV has failed to deter criminals," looks at the London riots and the way that rioters were willing to commit their crimes in full view of CCTV cameras, and what that says about CCTVs as deterrence. I think that we need to draw a distinction between having cameras on all the time in case someone commits a crime, and using cameras at the time that crimes are being committed -- for example, hooking up a CCTV to a glass-break sensor (possibly configured so the CCTV buffers and discards video continuously, but only saves the few seconds before the breakage).

There's a tiny one-way street on the way to my daughter's daycare that parallels an often crowded main road, and from time to time, local drivers will get the idea of using it as a high-speed shortcut. There are two schools in this street, and a lot of bicycle traffic, and I've lost track of the number of times that I've seen near accidents as impatient drivers roared down the street.

But the local council haven't installed a CCTV camera there full time. Instead, when the problem flares up, they stick one of those creepy CCTV cars at the top of the street and hand out gigantic speeding tickets for a day or two, until everyone gets the message and the street falls quiet again. That is, they locate a camera where there is a problem, use it until the problem is over, and relocate it. They don't watch everyone all the time in case someone does the wrong thing.

After all, that's how we were sold on CCTV – not mere forensics after the fact, but deterrence. And although study after study has concluded that CCTVs don't deter most crime (a famous San Francisco study showed that, at best, street crime shifted a few metres down the pavement when the CCTV went up), we've been told for years that we must all submit to being photographed all the time because it would keep the people around us from beating us, robbing us, burning our buildings and burglarising our homes.

A year before the Vancouver Winter Olympics, a reporter from a one of the local papers called me to ask whether I thought an aggressive plan to use CCTVs in the Gastown neighbourhood would help pacify the notorious high-crime heroin district. I said that the deterrence theory of CCTV relied on the idea that the deterred were making smart choices about their futures and would avoid crime if the consequences might catch up with them.

Then I recounted my last trip through Gastown, where the pavements were thronged with groaning and unconscious emaciated addicts, filthy and covered in weeping sores, and asked if those people could be reasonably characterised as "making smart choices about their future."

Why CCTV has failed to deter criminals

(Image: Riots in Hackney, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ssoosay's photostream and CCTV: Church Square, Bedford IMG_3569, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from fotdmike's photostream)

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  1. It doesn’t matter if there are cameras or not. No one will be detered from committing a crime, unless there are consequences. Your story, “when the problem flares up, they stick one of those creepy CCTV cars at the top of the street and hand out gigantic speeding tickets for a day or two, until everyone gets the message and the street falls quiet again.” just proves it. They are not slowing down because of the camera, they slow down because of the expensive ticket. We have to stop softening our laws, and enforce them fairly, evenly, and quickly across the board.

    1. I don’t think that’s correct (nor is it borne out by evidence). Street crimes — crimes committed by desperate or addicted people on the spur of the moment — take place without regard to consequence, because they’re committed by people who aren’t thinking about the future.

      As to “softening” the laws, the in UK they’ve just handed a man four years in gaol for “encouraging rioting” (not actually rioting, but encouraging others to do so) on Facebook. In what universe losing four years of your life for writing the wrong words “soft?”

      1. I share your thinking about desperation. I suspect that while “we” are sold a image of the rampant sociopath, pillaging, raping and killing for the sheer glee of it, most crimes are crimes of desperation. People stuck between a rock and a hard place that revert to fight or flight impulses where the law is something distant and abstract. To them it has become a issue of base survival, and that is perhaps the strongest instinct in all life. With procreation coming a close second.

        Btw, i read a claim that someone stole £1 worth of water during the riots and got 6 months. Wtf i say.

      2.  ‘In what universe losing four years of your life for writing the wrong words “soft?” ‘

        In ours, for most of its history. “Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre.” — “give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, and I shall find something therein to have him hanged.” It has been the norm in most times and places to consider speaking out against the rulers a capital offence. The usual state of humanity is that the privileged are enfeoffed of their local warlords; the remainder are in bondage, and neither class dare speak openly.

        1. Except that these weren’t words written against the ruling class, these were words written to instigate chaos that would primarily hurt the middle and lower classes. The ruling class are safely remived from the epicentres of this violence.

          This wasn’t thumbing the nose at Parliament, for example (which isn’t presently illegal), these were words written to organise crimes. That in this case they were ineffectual doesn’t make them less of a crime. I’ve argued elsewhere against ignoring or misattributing the societal causes of this violence, but those causes do not absolve the individuals concerned of personal responsibility. Planning a crime is itself a crime; how could it not be?

          There’s an argument to be made that the sentences being handed out are too harsh, but I don’t think there’s a case to be made that trying to instigate a riot is an innocent or harmless activity that needs protecting.

          1. I’m not sure I’d call most targets (large supermarket and clothes chains, at least in Manchester) “middle and lower classes”. And these two were hardly nefarious criminals plotting armed robbery: they were disaffected kids doing stupid things on a whim.

  2. As I always like to say, illegal never stopped anybody.

    Which is to say, legality is a matter of implied potential punishment used as deterrent (sometimes paired with childhood conditioning) — which in a situation where the laws are not consistently enforced (or are consistently unenforced, or are sometimes or always unenforceable) means that deterrence is not only nonexistent but misleadingly nonexistent. As anyone who has studied gambling from the perspective of a behaviorist knows, making an example of the one guy you managed to enforce an otherwise unenforceable law on is a good way of making everyone else who already breaks it on a regular basis break it double-time (though it arguably leverages the availability bias to make people less likely to start, but it also encourages empathy for whoever got pantsed by the overzealous enforcement and encourages unity amongst those who empathize more with the breakers of that particular law than with the enforcers).

    If you could consistently enforce every law then laws would work effectively as deterrents. However, most laws are put together under the assumption that they will not (and often cannot) be consistently enforced — and many exist primarily for the purpose of making it easier to enforce other laws. Jaywalking is the typical example: while it ostensibly exists to deter people from making dangerous crossings of busy streets, it is mostly applied to aid the police in other unrelated matters, since everyone needs to eventually cross the street (and someone running or walking away from police in a non-arrest context is not likely to wait for the light and use the zebra crossing); walking away from police who are not trying to arrest you is not illegal, but crossing the street in a manner that is considered insufficiently cautious can be. Were it to be enforced consistently, though, many people could never walk anywhere (there are too many streets with absolutely no crosswalks or stoplights anywhere).

    In other words, law as deterrent is fairly broken. It does work on the compulsively law-abiding, but the compulsively law-abiding aren’t likely to make much trouble anyway.

  3. This article is all well and good but allot of money has been spent on those CCTVs. More than a few politicians publicly backed them as well. We are not going to see politicians admit they had been wrong nor will we see CCTV installation decline due to the evidence at hand. If science and facts had anything to do with politics, the world wouldn’t be what it is.

  4. I believe that desperate crime is a symptom of a ailing society and a corrupt legal structure. We are driven to criminal behavior because there is no alternative to the current social system and we are denied the tools to initiate change. We do not own our lives and there are constant reminders that we will never be free or move up in this world unless we accept the indoctrination that has been keeping us here. CCTV is only a high tech way of reminding us that they own this world and as long as we let them get away with it they will. I think that everyone needs to learn that they are responsible for their involvement in this world and that letting someone else decide your involvement is like asking them to take control of your life. I guess I am just tired of everyone thinking that someone else will take care of it and putting absolute faith in “Expert” opinion is a good idea.

  5. The funniest part about all of this, and to some degree it reinforces what CD and John Ohno are banging on about, is the whole branding of CCTV as a deterrent. The reasoning, presumably, extrapolates to “if you are caught doing something wrong on CCTV, you will face the consequences of your crimes, which may include jail time”.

    Jail, of course, is the original deterrent. One that worked so well that CCTV was needed to augment it.

  6. Hey Cory, it may not stop crime, but it’s helping in identifying and convicting over 900 people so far post-riots.

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