Technology will continue to enhance our ability to monitor public spaces. But cities should seize upon more surveillance cautiously.

The potential value of public surveillance technology took on new meaning last week when investigators identified the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing after sifting through video images captured by the city’s cameras.

This has prompted public officials like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to speak of the “important function” such cameras play in offering safety on a daily basis and during events both big and small.

The successful use of this technology in such a high-profile investigation is likely to prompt other major cities to reaffirm – and even expand – their investment in and use of surveillance cameras. Civil liberties advocates fear this would create an undue invasion of privacy.

In the ensuing debates over privacy versus safety, advocates on both sides would be wise to consider the following guidelines.

  • Public surveillance cameras and civil liberties can coexist if cameras are implemented and employed responsibly. Our guidebook for using public surveillance systems advises law enforcement to consider privacy issues when creating surveillance policies. For one, cameras should avoid or mask inappropriate views of private areas, such as yards and second-story windows. Law enforcement agencies should also document and publicize policies governing how surveillance cameras can be used and what the disciplinary consequences are for misuse. Likewise, officers should be thoroughly trained on these policies and held accountable for abiding by them.
  • Public surveillance camera systems can be a cost-effective way to deter, document, and reduce crime. Urban’s research has shown that in Baltimore and Chicago, cameras were linked to reduced crime, even beyond the areas with camera coverage. The cost savings associated with crimes averted through camera systems in Chicago saved the city over four dollars for every dollar spent on the technology, while Baltimore yielded a 50 cent return on the dollar.
  • The usefulness of surveillance technology in preventing and solving crimes depends on the resources put into it. Our evaluation of three cities found that the most effective systems are monitored by trained staff, have enough cameras to detect crimes in progress, and integrate the technology into all manner of law enforcement activities.
  • As with any technology, the use of cameras is by no means a substitute for good old-fashioned police work. The detectives we interviewed reported that camera footage provides additional leads in an investigation and aids in securing witness cooperation. And prosecutors noted that video footage serves as a complement to—but not a replacement for—eyewitness evidence in the courtroom.

Technological advances will continue to enhance our ability to monitor public spaces. By extension, technology will continue to aid efforts to prevent crime and apprehend criminals. While the use of cameras to identify suspects involved in the Boston Marathon bombings may prompt cities to seize upon additional surveillance opportunities, they should do so cautiously—and with the benefit of lessons learned from other cities.

Top image: Kekyalyaynen/Shutterstock. This post originally appeared on the Urban Institute's MetroTrends blog, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: An elderly resident of a village in Japan's Gunma Prefecture.
    Life

    In Japan’s Vanishing Rural Towns, Newcomers Are Wanted

    Facing declining birthrates and rural depopulation, hundreds of “marginal villages” could vanish in a few decades. But some small towns are fighting back.

  2. audience members at venue
    Life

    What Early-Career Income Volatility Means for Your Middle-Aged Brain

    A long-term study of people in four cities finds that income volatility in one’s 20s and 30s correlates with negative brain effects in middle age.

  3. photo: A woman crosses an overpass above the 101 freeway in Los Angeles, California.
    Transportation

    Navigation Apps Changed the Politics of Traffic

    In an excerpt from the new book The Future of Transportation, CityLab’s Laura Bliss adds up the “price of anarchy” when it comes to traffic navigation apps.

  4. photo: Helsinki's national library
    Design

    How Helsinki Built ‘Book Heaven’

    Finland’s most ambitious library has a lofty mission, says Helsinki’s Tommi Laitio: It’s a kind of monument to the Nordic model of civic engagement.

  5. Equity

    Bernie Sanders and AOC Unveil a Green New Deal for Public Housing

    The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would commit up to $180 billion over a decade to upgrading 1.2 million federally owned homes.

×