After last year’s media panic surrounding a rash of gun crimes in Toronto and the recent tragic shooting death of a 15-year old boy, many people are concerned: about the safety of their communities. The police have been heavily promoting the installation of security cameras as a solution to crime in Toronto and are moving forward with plans to install security cameras in several areas in the GTA. Locations for the new surveillance technology include the downtown club district and several poor (and predominantly black) areas in North York and Scarborough. But do security cameras really make for safe communities? The experience of Britain shows otherwise.
The scale of government surveillance in Britain is difficult to truly comprehend. With over four million security cameras, Britain is the must watched society on earth. Cameras are everywhere: in the streets, subway and bus stations, airports, taxi cabs, shops, restaurants, bars, and public housing areas. The average Londoner will be on camera more than 300 times in a single day. Wherever you go, you are under the eyes of the state.
Many cameras do more than just watch. Increasing numbers of cameras are linked to software programs designed to record car license plates that cross reference the plate number with lists of “suspicious persons” or check for outstanding parking fines or other infractions. Efforts are currently underway to create large-scale facial recognition programs that would make an anonymous walk in public a thing of the past. Other programs analyze body language to detect “abnormal behavior” and alert monitors. For example, if you happened to be waiting for a friend while standing near a bank machine, you would quickly draw the attention of the authorities because your motions don’t match those of someone using a bank machine.
The surveillance program is also incredibly expensive. The British government spends between 150 to 300 million pounds (340 to 680 million dollars Canadian) of taxpayers money on the surveillance industry, pleasing the corporations that supply this technology to no end. In Toronto, police plan to spend $2 million. While not a major expenditure, these funds will only cover a six month pilot project of 15 cameras. Any large scale permanent project would quickly run into the tens of millions or more.
Surveillance is intrusive and expensive, but is it at least effective? While early studies commissioned by the police were wildly enthusiastic about the potential of surveillance technology, more rigorous independent studies have shown the results to be far less impressive. In a review of 22 different studies, the British Home Office found that security cameras are good for protecting cars, but not for protecting people. When cameras were placed in parking lots, vehicle crimes (mainly thefts) were significantly reduced. But when it came to preventing violent crime or crime in city centers or public housing areas the cameras had little to no impact.
Some areas even reported negative results from security cameras going up. When security cameras were installed in high-rent commercial districts crime in the area dropped, but only because crime was displaced to nearby poor residential neighbourhoods. In short, the amount of crime didn’t decrease, it just moved next door. As long as the root causes for crime were ignored, the best security cameras could do is displace crime.
When one looks at the British experience, it becomes clear that Toronto police want to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to stop the types of crime in the types of places were security cameras will have the least impact. This raises the issue, what else could this money by spent on? Criminologist have found that proper street lighting and keeping areas in decent repair have a far greater impact on crime than security cameras. Yet Toronto Community Housing is notorious for taking forever to repair burned out lighting, repair vandalism, or fix broken locks. The government also continues to do little about the lack of decent jobs in our communities, driving some people into criminal activity just to survive.
We need to demand that all levels of government deal with the root causes of crime in our communities and not waste our money on ineffective, intrusive, and expensive surveillance cameras! We need jobs, decent housing, and healthy communities!