Over the past 5 years, various cities in the U.S. have announced plans to deploy a public surveillance solution to help reduce crime and improve public safety and response to threats/incidents. However, almost every city has faced tremendous challenges in implementing these solutions and the results have been “blah” at best. The original premise was to setup a surveillance solution that would integrate all existing cameras in public locations, add more cameras, and deploy a management solution that would control them all from one central location and give all first responders complete situational awareness when responding to an incident. U.S. municipalities wanted to develop a network of cameras that would improve upon London’s “Ring of Steel”. Looking back at the missteps and ineffective deployments of the past decade, it sounds like municipalities and solution providers have both made missteps that must be rectified to ensure that public surveillance solutions are effective in deterring crime and identifying potential terrorist attacks.
Public Surveillance Challenges
Invasion of Privacy
The biggest challenge for municipalities is the perception that public surveillance infringes on the privacy of residents. While this is true to a certain extent, pedestrians and cars are moving on land that is owned by the municipality. This eliminates an expectation of privacy. In addition, my personal belief is that if you don’t want to get caught doing something, do it in the privacy of your home. The concept of expectation of privacy has been taken to extremes over the past few years by activists. The flipside to this argument is that while residents/activists cannot demand that municipalities not implement public surveillance solutions, there is an expectation that the surveillance data collected be used cautiously. Even with the best intentions, municipalities need to understand that they must communicate effectively with residents and ensure that the surveillance data is used for security purposes only. This requires an investment from municipalities for proactive communication and training of personnel.
Displacement is the phenomenon where crime moves from locality to locality due to the use of surveillance cameras. In London, there have been various noted instances where crime has moved away from areas under surveillance to areas that are not monitored as effectively. This tends to be a side effect of public surveillance solutions. It works effectively when used accurately and displaces crime to other localities. The lesson that municipalities can learn is that if they intend to use surveillance solutions, they must ensure that they use it everywhere equally. This is one of the only ways that municipalities can ensure that their system performs at optimum levels at all times.
Funding in this instance refers to both funding for solutions and funding for personnel. Public surveillance solutions are not the means to reduce the size of law enforcement personnel. These solutions are designed and intended to aid law enforcement personnel to perform their duties effectively. No amount of technology can help reduce the importance of good people working with it. One of the mistakes that municipalities have made in the past is reducing personnel and implementing technology. Computers are hard wired to pick up certain patterns or behaviors. However, a pattern does not prove that a crime is in progress. Humans are erratic by nature and it takes other humans to identify the pattern. Funding is critical to ensure that humans work in tandem with technology to improve safety and security.
Public surveillance is a key area of investment for municipalities. It is a valuable means to increase the effectiveness of law enforcement personnel and increase safety and security for residents. It is also a proactive means to deter crime. The challenges faced by municipalities can never be completely eliminated but ongoing investment and preemptive communication can help reduce the impact of these challenges in the long term. While there is no “holy grail” of solutions available for public surveillance, municipalities will do well to learn about the solutions other cities have implemented and learn from their best practices and missteps.
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Dilip Sarangan, Senior Strategist and Consultant at Compass Intelligence, has extensive consulting expertise which includes market research, brand management, geographic expansion strategy, and market education and branding strategies. His areas of expertise include: Physical Security, Homeland Security, Building Technologies, and Machine-to-Machine communications. You can you reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.