To the Editor:
The City of San Francisco installing Surveillance Cameras in Public Areas
San Francisco recently has begun to install surveillance cameras to monitor public spaces in the hope of reducing ever more increasing crime. Surveillance cameras make some citizens feel safer in their neighborhoods and might capture clear evidence of committed crimes; on the other hand, surveillance cameras have not been proven to be effective, pose ethical questions and are susceptible to abuse. Is it worth spending our tax dollars on surveillance cameras, or could the money be used for more effective crime prevention programs?
An article in a recent issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian refers to two studies that proved surveillance cameras do not reduce crime. One study from Britain showed that Britain has one camera for every 13 citizens, yet the changes in crime rates after the installation of these cameras were statistically insignificant. Another study done by the University of Cincinnati showed that the only effect surveillance cameras had was shifting crimes to other areas; however, they did not reduce overall crime. Exactly that seems to already be happening here in San Francisco. An article from the online publication beyondchron.com reads: “In July 2005, for example, the City installed cameras at the corner of Eddy and Buchanan * but now the City wants to install them just three blocks away at McAllister and Buchanan.” If the crime shifts from street corner to street corner and the city responds by installing more and more cameras, we will soon have our entire city blanketed with security cameras.
Let us picture a future with security cameras on every street corner and then look at the main reasons why the American Civil Liberty Union opposes surveillance cameras.
The first reason the ACLU opposes security cameras is that they have not been proven effective. More importantly though, the ACLU opposes security cameras because they are susceptible to abuse. These cameras present a tempting opportunity for criminal misuse by law enforcement’s “bad apples”. In 1997, for example, a police officer was caught monitoring gay-clubs in Washington and recording the license plate numbers of their patrons. He then searched databases to find out which of these gay men were married to women in order to blackmail them.
An even more frightening scenario would be an entire law enforcement agency abusing security camera systems. It would not be the first time that the FBI or other agencies have spied on political activists and kept illegal databases in this country. Imagine the power these cameras could give an institution that wants the names of every single person who marches in an anti-war rally and wants to run instant background checks on them. With technology advancing at a breathtaking pace and face recognition technology already a reality, we might be finally arriving at George Orwell’s predicted future that he described in his novel 1984.
Another factor to consider is the possibility of someone abusing a security camera system for personal reasons. One investigation by the Detroit Free Press showed that Michigan law enforcement officers used their camera system to stalk women. Expert studies from Britain showed that most camera system operators are male and that they targeted one in 10 women for entirely voyeuristic reasons.
After looking at some of the possible abuses, it is also worth pointing out that there are no checks and balances in place for the operation of these security camera systems. Before we install any more security cameras we need to establish very clear rules and regulations so that the described abuses can be prevented.
It is understandable that people living in crime-ridden neighborhoods would support surveillance cameras. In some cases witnesses of crimes are too afraid of retaliation to testify against the suspects. Security cameras might capture clear evidence of committed crimes and lead to arrests.
The same people living in these crime-ridden neighborhoods also support alternative measures like increased street lighting and more police foot patrol. Studies have actually shown that increased street lighting reduces crimes by twenty percent and they have also shown that regular police foot patrol reduced crime. With clear evidence showing these measures to be effective in crime reduction, the need to spend resources on controversial surveillance cameras is questionable.
Before the city of San Francisco installs any more cameras, it should take a hard look at the many possibilities in which these cameras could be abused. Hopefully the city would realize that there are no regulations and rules in place to prevent these abuses.
San Francisco has two options. It can put money into crime prevention programs that work, like more street lighting and regular police foot patrol. Or it can continue on its course: wasting money for controversial surveillance camera systems that at best help solve some crimes after they have taken place.
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