In police vernacular, "surveillance" evokes images of cops sitting in cars or near windows for hours or days at a time, peering through binoculars and drinking lots of bad coffee. That kind of surveillance still happens, but it's increasingly common to have 24-hour surveillance of a location by way of cameras or listening devices that may or may not have someone actively viewing the output at the receiving end. Modern wireless networks and new battery technologies make it possible to locate these unmanned stakeouts virtually anywhere and without breaking the bank to do it.
The most common-and one of the most controversial-means of continuous surveillance is with the use of video cameras mounted on utility poles, buildings, and other vantage points where officers can "see" activity on streets and in public places like parks and transit terminals.
4 Million Cameras
Police in the United Kingdom have led this initiative. There are 4 million cameras operating throughout the U.K. and more than 1 million active in London alone. Most of these are actively monitored by police constables (PCs) in central stations. PCs stand watches at control panels where they see the output of many cameras on wall-mounted displays.
There have been some dramatic episodes where the watchers saw crimes occurring in real time and quickly dispatched patrol PCs to the scene. Suspects who would have otherwise walked calmly from the scene and gone undetected were identified by the surveillance crew, who used their radios to direct the beat cops to the guilty party.
Unfortunately, recent reports indicate this kind of bust is the exception, rather than the rule. In August, the BBC reported that the cameras are rarely effective in detecting or solving crimes. Solved cases that involved the use of surveillance camera video in London worked out to one case for every 1,000 cameras in 2008. The British government has spent £500 million ($821 million) on public safety surveillance cameras nationwide, and citizens are demanding greater accountability from their police.
The Chicago Experience
Here in the United States, the Chicago Police Department is a big believer in surveillance cameras. There are more than 2,000 government-operated cameras pointed at Chicago streets, transit stations, housing authority properties, and critical infrastructure installations around the city.
Some 170 of these cameras are "blue light cameras," marked with flashing blue lights and Chicago PD emblems identifying them as police cameras. Most of the cameras are mounted on utility poles. They reside in bulletproof, weatherproof housings and can be panned and zoomed by operators in the department's communications center, in district stations, and in some cases by officers in patrol cars.
CPD literature calls the camera a Police Observation Device (POD). And the department's experience has been very different from that in the U.K. A total of 30 PODs were deployed in early 2003 as a pilot program called "Operation Disruption." The idea was to proactively intervene on crime in the areas where the PODs were used. The results were highly positive. All calls for service decreased by 44 percent, with calls related to narcotics down 76 percent in the monitored neighborhoods. At the same time, narcotics arrests in the beats adjoining the target areas increased by almost 152 percent, indicating that dealers and users were migrating away from the cameras.
By December 2003, CPD increased the POD deployment to 80 cameras, and added equipment so that all cameras could transmit wirelessly. The PODs were intended to be relocated as needed, and they were moved frequently to meet changing crime profiles and cover blind spot areas. In 2005, the department added to the inventory "hybrid" PODs that were less prominent. These devices still had flashing blue lights, but they didn't operate continuously. Operators could start the lights flashing from the control center at any time. The next year brought the addition of "Micro-PODs" containing two cameras: one mounted on a rooftop and the other on a tower for high-elevation shots.
In 2006, the Illinois Board of Education recognized that students were at highest risk of violence at the end of the school day. This is when assaults took place near school grounds or at parks, transit stops, and other high-traffic areas. By the end of the 2007 school year, 103 PODs were installed in these areas, and patrols were increased when students were leaving school.
There are many success stories where the surveillance cameras were instrumental in solving street crime incidents, aided in monitoring plainclothes officers engaged in stings and decoy operations, and addressed quality of life issues such as panhandling, public drunkenness, and vandalism.
Unfortunately, there are also unintended consequences and liabilities. In September, a surveillance camera recorded an off-duty Chicago officer allegedly beating a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver unconscious. The officer claimed the driver cut him off as the officer was riding his bicycle in traffic. And when the mortal assault of a Chicago teenager was recorded by a cell phone camera and later broadcast on CNN, the blue light camera at that location wasn't working, despite having been reported inoperative three weeks previous. With police surveillance cameras, it's clear the Skylab Rule applies: if you can't keep it up, don't do it.