Each year, near the year’s end, council receives a report on its Closed Circuit Television initiative (CCTV) outlining the costs and benefits of the program. Many on council and in the general public have great faith in the ability of this program to prevent and reduce crime, increase detection and conviction of offenders, and to increase the safety and security of residents.
This year, council did not wait for the report to arrive; early in September, Councillor Steve Orser approached the Community and Neighbourhoods (CNC) to make it aware of drug problems in relation to an alleyway along Dundas Street East. In addition to closing a particularly problematic alleyway, installing a needle collection receptacle and increasing police presence, Orser wanted the city to consider installing surveillance cameras along Dundas Street between Adelaide and Rectory Streets.
It’s not an unusual request, especially from Orser who is frequently preoccupied with London’s underbelly, in his own ward and elsewhere. Crime and crime control are always magnets for votes and media.
Despite strained relations between Orser and the Old East Village Business Improvement Association (BIA) --Orser had announced at a Committee of the Whole meeting last year that it should be disbanded—BIA manager Sarah Merritt agreed that, after nearly five years of gradual reduction thanks to concerted efforts of the community, the police and the city, drug dealing in the area had increased in the last year . Something needed to be done. She wrote a letter to CNC detailing her concerns.
CNC recommended that staff be requested to contact the appropriate parties regarding the closing of the alleyway, install the needle collection box, and report back on the feasibility of installing security cameras. Council endorsed the recommendations. However, by the time staff reported back to CNC, that committee had received another request: to install surveillance cameras along Dundas Street in the Argyle commercial district. Merchants in the newly formed BIA there were experiencing problems of graffiti and loitering which they felt interfered with their ability to attract customers.
Orser was skeptical of the legitimacy of the Argyle BIA concerns. Graffiti and loitering? Hardly equivalent to the drugs, violence and prostitution that he could claim for his jurisdiction. And he could boast of support from a new merchants’ association in his area, ELMO (East London Merchants’ Organization) which had 52 members. They had already indicated such in a letter to the city.
Nancy McSloy, spokesperson for the Argyle BIA, had not expected this type of challenge. It wasn’t just graffiti and loitering; there were “hot spots” like bars and phone booths.
Dave O’Brien, in charge of security and security cameras, was called on to respond. He pointed out that the placement of surveillance cameras is not based on “hot spots”; it would take some time to assess the technical suitability of the location for surveillance. And there was also the matter of cost. As pointed out by Ross Fair, executive director of community services for the city, there was no money in the budget and the request would have to go through services review. Time was running out.
CCTV came to London at the end of 2001 following the downtown homicide in early 1999 of Michael Goldie-Ryder, a young man who had died defending two young women. A young female student in my class at the time told her classmates about the formation of FASE (Friends Against Senseless Endings) which was raising money to buy surveillance cameras. The group, headed by Goldie-Ryder’s mother, raised $171,500 from local businesses and individuals, not quite enough to cover the costs of purchase and installation of 6 cameras estimated at $235,000. A committee was established to oversee the implementation.
Inevitably, problems and disagreements emerged over the objectives of the initiative and the monitoring of the cameras. What had begun as a citizens’ initiative was increasingly taking up staff time and resources. Frustrated by what he saw as lack of progress and subversion of the original objective, co-chair Dave Tennant of Hampton Group resigned. He saw no point in attending meetings that accomplished nothing.
Almost from the beginning, city staff was tasked with the job of monitoring the cameras. FASE had believed that this could be done by volunteers, but interest in doing so quickly waned. This proved to be an expensive undertaking, costing taxpayers about $110,000 per year. To date, the city has spent more than 1 million dollars monitoring the cameras during the evening hours.
FASE had envisioned the presence of the cameras as deterrence to crime. There should never be another victim like Goldie-Ryder. They had wanted a marketing and signage program that would let people know about the cameras; would-be assailants would think twice. However, crimes of violence fueled by alcohol are rarely subject to rational reflection. After an initial media flurry of attention to the installation of the cameras, interest died. Today, few residents could enumerate the locations of the cameras and the incidence of crime in sight of the cameras has remained stable. In London, as in other jurisdictions that have installed open street cameras, there is no evidence that these prevent crime. In fact, according to last year’s staff report for 2009, “the number of occurrences in the area covered by the cameras had a 65% increase. This was mainly attributed to a 102% increase in the number of thefts from motor vehicles.”
Where surveillance cameras have some utility is in police investigations. In 2009, members of various police departments “reviewed 196 incidents resulting in 31 reviews assisting in identifying persons of interest in the respective investigations.” In some cases this may result in arrest and charges being laid, followed by a guilty plea. Obtaining a conviction is more difficult since the images tend to be of poor quality.
Some critics have suggested that the presence of surveillance cameras simply re-locates the problem, as has been the case with beefed up policing in troubled areas. There is little evidence of this with surveillance cameras on the street. You don’t have to move far to be out of range, and some of the activities that cameras are installed to discourage, such as loitering, can hardly be thought of as a crime.
Surveillance cameras may be effective in preventing crime in some very specific situations and for very specific behaviours. The owner of Sutherland Furniture in the Argyle area found installing a security camera at his building reduced graffiti. Cameras at bank machines and in parking garages also increase security for those who use the services. But those are enclosed areas and the presence of the cameras is advertised on signs or otherwise well understood by all.
If the primary use of cameras is their aid as an investigative tool, then responsibility for these should belong to the police, to purchase and install and to monitor. The police budget has been increasing by more than 3% per year while city departments are being asked to do more with less. It’s not sustainable.
There are other issues as well, of course, issues like rights to privacy, the roots of crime, the distribution of services and opportunities. Surveillance cameras won’t eliminate poverty, or anger, or alienation. They won’t heal the mentally ill or addicted. They won't eradicate prostitution.
Those are problems that require social change, not technological quick fixes.