Setting up surveillance downtown

A local politician thinks setting up CCTV surveillance cameras is a good idea for making the downtown and city parks safer. To help make his idea become reality, he knows he can depend on financial support from a community foundation. In another community, the police chief sees surveillance cameras working well for other police departments and wants to apply for a federal grant to bring CCTV to his community. Regardless of who thinks of the idea, it's essential politicians, law enforcement commanders and the citizens they serve work together if they want CCTV to succeed.

     When implemented with a well-thought plan and used properly, CCTV can potentially be a real force multiplier for law enforcement agencies of any size, says Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe, author of "Video Surveillance of Public Places," a guide funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (See

Cost-effective crime reduction?

Expectations of surveillance camera systems must be realistic. If they are not, the technology is only being set up to fail. CCTV is not a one-size-fits-all solution for preventing and solving crime. Law enforcement agencies must evaluate whether or not CCTV systems are truly in focus with their needs and doable in their municipalities. A 2006 nationwide Harris Poll reported 67 percent of adults favor expanded camera surveillance on streets and in public places. But in some communities, the public's concerns about privacy will prevent the use of CCTV in public locations.

To help agencies determine whether or not CCTV is a good idea, Ratcliffe says agencies must ask themselves:

"What types of crime are we trying to prevent and is there a more cost-effective way to achieve long-term crime prevention?"

CCTV can work well to prevent crime in small, well-defined areas such as public parking lots, he says, but improved lighting, increased security, and better parking barriers and control mechanisms work equally well. And, he says the ongoing cost for police departments is much less.

Maximizing the benefits of a surveillance system requires ongoing maintenance (which can be included with the initial installment) and personnel costs (which vary depending on whether an agency is monitoring video 24/7 or only looking at the video after a crime has occurred).

Rather than looking at CCTV as the only tool available to prevent all crime, Ratcliffe, an associate professor with the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, says law enforcement agencies should review a range of crime prevention tactics.

Conversely, he points out a misconception exists among law enforcement that CCTV cameras don't do a lot of good. Ratcliffe explains why cameras can be effective: When offenders know the cameras are there, they realize that if they commit a crime, they will be caught on video; and the risk of capture outweighs the benefits of the crime.

Another misconception is that cameras just move crime around the corner from where a camera is installed. That generally is not the case, he says.

"The research suggests that if you put a camera on a corner, the benefits of that camera can often spread to surrounding streets the camera can't see [because the offender is not necessarily aware of that]," he says.

A diffusion of benefits is more likely than displacement, he says, although displacement can be beneficial, too.

"If you prevent offenders from committing crime at their favorite, chosen location, they may go somewhere else," explains Ratcliffe, who publishes and lectures on environmental criminology. "But if they go to their second choice, they may not be able to commit as much crime. If you move them from their second location to their next choice, they may commit even less crime there, so you can actually reduce crime."

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, for example, surveillance cameras have had a big impact on street robberies. In the first year, Minneapolis reduced robberies by 44 percent and thefts from motor vehicles by 14 percent where cameras were set up downtown.

Combating high-crime areas

To reduce crime, cameras need to be set up in the highest level crime areas. "There's really no point in putting cameras in low-crime areas," says Ratcliffe.

Yet, he has seen that happen when camera placement is based on politics rather than crime analysis.

"It can be a real millstone around the neck of a small police department if closed circuit TV cameras are implemented in places where they are not really needed," Ratcliffe warns. "Once you bring in the camera systems and tell people you have CCTV, it's really difficult to remove them. The public and politicians will never accept that you are removing the CCTV cameras. Once you have the cameras, you're stuck with them."

Instead of being force multipliers, they create more work.

When cameras are set up in a location where public disorder often erupts, officer safety can benefit. CCTV can provide officers a heads-up as they talk by radio to an officer monitoring the cameras or officers can see for themselves what's taking place by looking at a monitor in their patrol car. Knowing in advance what they are responding to helps prepare officers before they arrive.

The challenges of CCTV implementation

Once law enforcement agencies understand the benefits of CCTV, they must realize the challenges they may face to gain those benefits. In addition to political challenges, Gerry Wethington, vice president of Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety for Reston, Virginia-based Unisys Corporation, describes business and technology challenges.

The business challenge is aligning organizational need and capabilities with the appropriate level of technology, Wethington says. And to leverage the technologies, he adds that traditional law enforcement practice requires adaptation.

Selecting the appropriate video camera is essential, but there's more technology working behind the scenes that requires careful consideration.

Vendors can help establish an understanding of the technologies, which in basic terms will include:

  • various types (and qualities) of cameras,
  • communications and network connectivity options, and
  • recording capacities and capabilities.

Many factors impact technology selection. Geography, number of cameras, existing infrastructure, permits for system placement, power for field-deployed surveillance equipment and communications are all factors when implementing a surveillance system, Wethington says.

While the technology can sound complex, he says, with help, it can be the easiest of the three challenges to take on.

Technology assistance

When looking for someone to help put new technology in place, an agency should seek someone who understands (or will diligently learn) the unique technology requirements of the policing environment. It's also important that a consultant and/or systems integrator not only understands networking but how to network video technology. And lastly, to determine the best way to transmit images from one geographic location to another, a consultant or integrator must possess local engineering knowledge. A city agency that wants to install cameras on every block downtown has different needs than a rural agency looking to install a couple of cameras 10 miles apart.

Kent Huffman, chief marketing officer for BearCom Wireless Worldwide, headquartered in Dallas, Texas, says agencies should choose an integrator that is experienced with the various technologies involved, and has strong customer references.

"Also, be sure to explore the various DOT (Department of Transportation) and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) grants available to help offset the cost of the system components and installation," he says. "A good integrator can help with that part of the process as well."

Working with the community

Minneapolis' Deputy Chief Rob Allen suggests corporate partners in the community can help, too.

"We know far less about camera technology than a lot of our corporate partners who work downtown," says Allen, co-founder of the Minneapolis SafeZone Collaborative ( "They've been doing cameras for years. It only makes sense that we talk to them and use their expertise. They've become real partners in helping us figure out how to do a camera system, how to fund it, and to train officers how to monitor video."

Allen's advice for other agencies is "you have to have community support for cameras;" and he includes businesses in his definition of community.

Before cameras are turned on, a camera monitoring policy, which addresses privacy and video retention concerns, should be made available to the public.

Monitoring the future

When used judiciously, Ratcliffe says CCTV can be an effective way to prevent crime. But, he says, he's concerned with what Gary Marx, author of "Undercover: Police Surveillance in America," has called "surveillance creep."

There seems to be a growing trend of residents running systems, and Ratcliffe says that creates potential for abuse and invasion of privacy because there's no accountability.

A former officer with the Metropolitan Police in London, he advises surveillance systems be monitored by police.

As long as police departments bring in good codes of practice and use CCTV ethically today, he says the public will continue to accept surveillance when they are in public places.

Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer living in Wisconsin. She has been writing about law enforcement issues for approximately 10 years. She can be reached at