Surveillance cameras; do they really prevent crime?

surveillance cameras
Three surveillance cameras.

Around the world, there are millions of cameras installed on street corners and in businesses, parks, stadiums and private homes intended to cut crime and bolster public safety. As camera technology improves and equipment prices come down, governments looking for ways to be more efficient and to cut the high labor costs of crime-fighting, generally turn to CCTV, because to the layman, they are effective crime deterrents.

Late last week, it was announced that the city of Barranquilla will be receiving 544 such units which will be placed strategically across the city to help improve security and to help control crime. There are already around 276 units in use and the plan is that 820 are installed by the end of the year.

But studies¹,² show that surveillance cameras aren’t in fact as effective as we might think and often, simply push crime to another area. In fact, in San Francisco, a study by the City and the University of California Berkeley found that while violent crime markedly decreased within 250 meters of visible surveillance cameras, it simply increased outside 250 meters. Also, an article in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology³ noted that the ability of CCTV to prevent crime is inconclusive.

In all cases, to actively form a deterrent, cameras must be clearly identified with signage and local law enforcement must be alert, actively rolling units to intercept suspicious behavior.

Another big concern with surveillance cameras is the flawed perception they create for the public that:

a) the areas where they are installed must be high crime areas, or

b) the areas where they are installed must be safe.

In the former case, property values can be negatively affected and in the latter, many people fail to take basic precautions against crime, incorrectly assuming the area is protected. Ironically, cameras can also cause property values to increase if residents feel the cameras prevent crime.

For true crime prevention, governments may be better off putting more police on the pavement. However, there are more uses for cameras than simply prevention.

Civil uses: Surveillance technology is actively used by local governments to track population movements for better city construction, to count vehicles for traffic warning signage, and in this case, to create a live, 3D blueprint of a city for planning research. In Barranquilla, several of the new cameras will be dual-tasked to record important events and celebrations.

Post-crime investigation: Camera technology today has advanced light-years from the simple rectangular boxes attached to a VCR as we’ve seen in so many Hollywood movies and TV shows.

According to Al Shipp, the CEO of 3VR, a recognized leader in video intelligence, “Most people don’t understand the full ability of today’s surveillance technology. Instead of watching hours, and maybe days, of video, you can simply ask questions of the system like, ‘Show me all red cars going east.’, or, Show me all red cars going east — fast.’ Or, ‘All red cars going east, fast, with a partial plate of A-B in the last 48 hours.’”

You can also program the picture of a face into advanced facial recognition software to search all video content across the country for say, the last 24 hours, and point out where there is a match. Other software is being developed which can identify people from 500 feet away based on their gait (how they walk). Here’s an interesting video from Sony of the latest high-resolution video technology.

The video analytics industry is growing by 30 percent per year and the software alone is poised to become a billion-dollar business. The surveillance equipment market meanwhile is expected to top $25.6 billion by 2018.

All in all, video surveillance is an excellent tool for post crime analysis, enabling police investigators to look into the past to ascertain the who, what, and where of an incident. Such capability has led to the apprehension of many offenders.

We shall see how local government here in Barranquilla decide to roll out their new hardware. Given this month’s announcement on free public wifi, its not surprising to hear about the purchase of the cameras and I expect there will be a few placed in each wifi zone. It will be interesting to see whether they act as a deterrent or are used post crime.



1. Walsh B.C.,Farrington D.P. (2009). “Effects of closed-circuit television on crime”The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 587 (1): 110–135.doi:10.1177/0002716202250802.

2. “Public Area CCTV and Crime Prevention: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”. Journalist’s

3. Piza, Eric L.; Caplan, Joel M.; Kennedy, Leslie W. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, June 2014, Volume 30, Issue #2, pp. 237-264

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In a former life, Mike was a corporate project manager in Canadian telecom. For the last 6 years, he has been traveling around Latin America, teaching English and writing. Mike now lives with his partner in beautiful Barranquilla.