How Surveillance Cameras Can Help Prevent and Solve Crime

By Nancy La Vigne :: April 23rd, 2013





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.

Surveillance Camera photo courtesy of Shutterstock


  1. David K. M. Klaus  ::  7:37 pm on April 23rd, 2013:

    I don’t feel safer from them, but I’m old enough to actually have read 1984. And in Great Britain, some officers monitoring the cameras’ view have been convicted in court of misusing them for window-peeping.

    None of your reasons for keeping them are worth the raised taxes and social & psychological costs they engender.

    Do you love Big Brother?

  2. Viewpoints  ::  8:50 am on April 26th, 2013:

    [...] Read La Vigne’s guidelines and access links to relevant Urban Institute research HERE. [...]

  3. From Boston  ::  4:44 pm on April 30th, 2013:

    The Boston bombers were apprehended quickly due to surveillance cameras. Yes. All agree. No dispute over how well the public cameras were on that day. Who draws the line at what is public interest and just plain harassment when a camera is placed. dozens of cases have found courts stand behind the camera’s. BUT, what about the camera placed by a private citizen for property surveillance? what about the private camera placed on property with malicious intent? Who regulates the camera on private property? Decides the camera on private property deliberately fixed and set to view 15 feet away into another home? this camera is in plain sight of both parties. The camera does not view public property. It is not on a roadway. It does not deter crime. Due to timing, proximity, history of adverse neighbor relations it was placed for the sole purpose of retaliation. Police, citing public interest of ALL camera’s could not assist the owner of the home whose privacy was being invaded. Yes surveillance cameras are important to deter crime. It is important to note who is at the other end of the camera? Who really is watching you? Who ultimately views what the camera lens observes? Who decides when a privately owned security surveillence camera is poorly aimed and when the same camera is deliberately pointed into the windows of a private residence? A litmus test should be considered as a tool for deciding a cameras purpose and value in society. (I will add that gender, age and disability all play a key role.) Who draws the line between public interest and harassment? At the moment, nobody. it is a case by case decision. The camera in this case the police decided that despite obvious visual observance the camera was not breaking any laws….it was of public interest just as a red light camera was rote cited by the constitution, this camera, the owners were also protected. The camera’s owners could legally do what a peeping tom could not do. They could peer inside of windows with the full protection of the law on their side. Through protecting the rights of the public interest of all surveillance camera’s, police (in this unnamed Massachusetts town/city) have allowed for a legal loophole with electronic “peeping toms”. If a person were standing watching outside a window it could be a crime, yet same person could place a surveillance camera then remotely view a person within the privacy of their home. Most important, it is not against the penal code.
    Yes, public interest and safety along with surveillance cameras are here to stay. The definition of a public camera for public interest vs a private surveillance camera placed for bad bad behavior has a very blurry line. Ask me? I live it. Four privately owned security cameras deliberately aimed to vew inside of my windows, invade my privacy within my own domain has a fact of life. But…I am am not allowed to write about it for fear of safety and monetary reasons. The camera owners, private citizens, are bringing a lawsuit against me for harassing them….how did i harass you ask? By placing personal identifying information in view of said camera, thus rendering any pictures useless. Privately owned, operated surveillance cameras are treated the same as public cameras. Who really is watching you? Who owns that camera anyway? Big brother? Or harassing neighbor?

  4. Five Ways to Reduce Crime  ::  3:34 pm on May 8th, 2013:

    [...] Monitor public surveillance cameras. The recent events in Boston have demonstrated the crucial role public cameras can play in investigations of high-profile criminal acts. Our research found that cameras can also be a cost-effective means [...]

  5. Dennis Neftleberg  ::  6:23 pm on May 12th, 2013:

    There is a big difference in using cctv for security to protect life and liberty and the city using cctv as a revenue generator against its citizens. These red light cameras are purely for generating revenue.

  6. Cameras | Security Camers  ::  3:54 am on May 17th, 2013:

    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.

  7. Chicago Security Cameras: Too Many? – Security Dynamics  ::  5:19 pm on May 17th, 2013:

    [...] “Public surveillance cameras and civil liberties can coexist if cameras are implemented and employed responsibly,” says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. [...]

  8. Fort Worth Security Cameras Tech  ::  4:29 pm on September 4th, 2013:

    Just in general security cameras can be a big deterrent when I talk to my customers throughout Dallas Fort Worth about surveillance and their cctv needs I let them know that when people see cameras mounted any criminal that is presumed half smart will feel it is less riskier just to go to Bobs house next store and commit whatever act against them instead of risking the house showing cameras as a form of protection.

  9. Pasadena Security  ::  5:02 am on September 25th, 2013:

    I also think that security cameras can intimidate burglars from breaking into a house in neighborhood that is well netted.

  10. Pasadena CA Security  ::  5:04 am on September 25th, 2013:

    Public surveillance cameras can be essential for maintaining the city safety.

  11. James Smith  ::  5:14 am on December 20th, 2013:

    Surveillance Cameras are best for security it will use for home security

  12. mickydavid  ::  7:21 am on April 8th, 2014:

    very good thoughts Thanks for post…

  13. Mr William  ::  9:07 am on May 29th, 2014:

    TO cover a public area under the CCTV surveillance is the best way to control the crime rate.

  14. getstealth  ::  12:56 am on May 30th, 2014:

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  15. Mr Wright  ::  9:30 am on June 9th, 2014:

    Surveillance cameras in the public areas are very much effective compare to other security system even though they are important too.

  16. Jennifer  ::  7:17 am on June 27th, 2014:

    To solve crime and stop crime the surveillance cameras are the best option for that..and in high profile area,complex,bunglows this kind of security camera is good.

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  18. Adesanmi Adedotun  ::  11:37 am on July 27th, 2014:

    Surveillance security camera is highly recommended for every sectors home inclusive. Protecting life and properties this day isn’t easy since no one can present in two places at the same time but with the help surveillance security camera, you can be rest assured that you are 99% saved from intruders

  19. Luke Yan  ::  9:06 pm on September 5th, 2014:

    A major argument in favour of implementing camera surveillance is its assumed deterrent effect. Despite claims by police, private security and camera technology companies, deterrence has not been proven. There may well be more evidence that cameras have little to no deterrent effect, since crime rates and other indicators used to measure deterrence fluctuate greatly after camera surveillance installation. At best, deterrence can be achieved only in select locations like parking garages.

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