Not ready to say 'cheese'

In the opening credits of the gritty HBO crime series, “The Wire”, viewers see a street thug break a surveillance camera with a rock. It’s an act of contempt against the perceived omnipresence and intrusion of government into his neighborhood. But as regular viewers might note, the subject of “The Wire” was the violence of drug dealing.

Some in Pine Bluff would have us employ surveillance cameras to assail our own crime wave. Unlike “The Wire”, the tempest in our local teacup is far less compelling: trash dumping. Even so, it is illegal and it makes our community less than it might otherwise be. In particular, it makes one neighborhood in city council member Steven Mays’ ward a lot less than it might be.

In response, Mays has put forth a proposal to install surveillance cameras in the Westside Loop Neighborhood Watch area. Illegal dumping has been one of Mays’ signature issues for most of his tenure in office. Nobody likes trash; and nobody wants it dumped on their doorstep.

While Mays’ proposal has a certain face validity, there are several important details that need to be explored before anyone climbs a pole with a camera. In the first instance, no one has presented any evidence (i.e. studies or reports from other cities) where similar problems have been effectively addressed through the use of video surveillance. Second, nothing has been specified about the costs associated with installing, maintaining or monitoring these cameras — or which city department would have to foot the bill and provide the personnel. Also, nothing has been specified about the type of equipment necessary, the required image quality or the expertise needed to analyze any putative evidence the cameras might provide. In short, what we have before us is a seemingly plausible plan, but a plan so bereft of important details as to render it useless as a guide for action.

Until such time as someone on the city council fills in these significant informational voids, there’s little actionable substance to this proposal.

If Mays wants this idea to move forward, he needs to provide real data and research to support it, not just glittering generalities that bend to angry public whim. We are, however, unsure that Mays can do so. We come to that conclusion because the vast majority of controlled scientific research on the efficacy of video surveillance is at best a mixed bag.

Cities like Baltimore have witnessed considerable success that’s attributable to the presence of surveillance cameras. Whereas, Chicago — the U.S. city with the most expansive video system in the nation — has not produced a statistically significant drop in crime that’s associable with the presence of cameras.

If our city intends to move forward with this proposal, then it needs to demonstrate the suitability and feasibility of the proposal. To this point, no one involved has done so.

If Mays wants to help his ward, he needs to present a more compelling case. If the other members of the council want to help their respective wards, they need to be guided by that research as well.