Cameras, Crime, and Terrorism

The attempted bombing in Times Square brought terrorism and the capabilities of surveillance cameras to the top of the headlines this week. As I pointed out in my Politico piece, cameras have not proven an effective deterrent to terrorist attacks. Cameras are generally useful in piecing together the plot after the attack (not so much in this case, since police were looking for a middle-aged white man and not a young Pakistani male) and helped in this capacity in the Madrid, London, and Moscow commuter system bombings.

I discuss the usefulness of cameras in this podcast:

Whether cameras are helpful enough to justify massive spending to install more of them in New York is another matter. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly seems to think so, even though it’s already been the site of significant surveillance funding from the federal government. Steve Chapman remains skeptical of them, and former NYPD counterterrorism cop Michael Sheehan is honest enough to admit that their value is in investigating attacks, not deterring them. London has a million cameras, making it the most heavily-surveilled city this side of Pyongyang. Though sold on a joint counterterrorism-crime rationale, they did not deter the 7/7 bombings and roughly 80% of crime in London goes unsolved. Of the cleared cases, roughly one in a thousand is a camera success story.

As Roger Pilon points out, cameras are useful in law enforcement operations outside of blanket surveillance. They can deter excessive use of force and other unlawful conduct by police officers or at least provide a means of punishing those responsible, as they did in the recent beating of University of Maryland student. Police officers realize this, and actively deter filming their questionable activities.

A camera is an honest cop’s best friend. It can provide a defense against groundless claims of brutality. At least eleven states and 500 local jurisdictions require that interrogations be videotaped. Beyond the protection of civil liberties and preventing false or coerced confessions, these videos make for highly probative evidence. The jury gets a window into the interrogation room. The defendant’s mannerisms, demeanor, and a lack of police coercion tied to the defendant’s statements make for good, and more transparent, policing.