Bringing surveillance cameras into focus


In less than a month, Pine Bluff has endured two violent, life-ending robberies of convenience stores. To their credit, the city council has taken notice; and within the limits of their expertise, appear eager to affect a solution.

It is well documented that this august body has no interest in my opinions on such matters. Even so, I feel obliged to offer a couple ideas.

The leading proposal was made by Alderman George Stepps. Stepps is to be congratulated for taking the initiative. His plan would require owners of fast food restaurants, filling stations and convenience stores to install and maintain surveillance cameras inside their businesses.

In his rush to address the problem, Stepps clearly paid no heed to the expansive scholarly literature on the efficacy of these surveillance systems — but then again, evidenced-based, empirically validated research is something this council tries to avoid. The rest of us don’t have that luxury.

The Center for Problem Oriented Policing concludes that the effectiveness of these systems for crime prevention is “questionable.”

In their paper, “Multistate Study of Convenience Store Robberies,” Charles Wellford, John MacDonald and Joan Weiss conclude, “…the deterrent effects of security devices, such as alarms and video cameras, have received mixed support.”

Similarly, W. J. Crow and R. J. Erickson’s study, “Cameras and Silent Alarms: A Study of Their Effectiveness as a Robbery Deterrent,” finds “[no] significant difference in robbery between stores with cameras and those without.”

Even so, these systems are not without merit. Jerry Radcliffe in his study, “Video Surveillance of Public Places,” describes what must occur for these systems to deter crime, “Although CCTV (close circuit television) has many functions, the primary preventative utility is to trigger a perceptual mechanism in a potential offender. It seeks to change offender perception so the offender believes if he commits a crime, he will be caught. In other words, CCTV aims to increase the perceived risk of capture, a factor which, assuming the offender is behaving in a rational… manner, will de-motivate the potential offender.”

Radcliffe goes on to state, “For this crime prevention process to succeed, two elements must exist: The offender must be aware of the cameras’ presence. The offender must believe the cameras present enough risk of capture to negate the rewards of the intended crime.”

The first of these is easy enough. A lot of signage and publicity could increase public awareness of the cameras’ existence. The second element — one predicated on a rational actor — is where this best laid plan slides right into the toilet.

Just imagine what it would take for you to risk a death sentence. Chances are if you’re reading this newspaper, you’re also likely aware that the average “take” in a convenience store robbery is less than $800. Would you, as a rational person, risk lethal injection for $800? Do you honestly think anyone sufficiently detached from reality — who would take such a risk — can be effectively deterred by a video camera?

Cameras (if properly selected, installed and maintained) greatly improve the chances of catching and convicting the monsters who commit these terrible crimes. But, post-cow-leaving-the-barn strategies do little to console the friends and families left behind, once the killing is done.

If not cameras, then what? In their excellent POP Center Guidebook titled “Robberies of Convenience Stores” (http://www.popcenter.org/problems/robbery_convenience/), Alicia Altizio and Diana York outline and evaluate twenty different techniques for addressing this problem. Before we stomp off into dubious solutions, we ought to at least see what works in other places.

Altizio and York are quick state that there are no magic fixes; and solutions they offer may or may not fit local conditions. Even with those caveats, it shouldn’t take repeated murders for the city council to be shamed into doing its homework. The proposed ordinance will be costly, logistically complex and very difficult to enforce. Maybe costly, complex and difficult is what we need, but absent actual evidence-based research, we can’t tell — and neither can the council.

Hipshot reactionary government conducted by whim and passion is what got us into this mess. Does anyone really think it will get us out of it.

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via pate.matthew@gmail.com