Evaluating The Efficacy of Public Cctv Systems


The concept of using Public Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) systems for reduction of misbehaviour and crime has been considered as one of the important methods of social control in the present period (Jewkes & Johnston, 2012). CCTV initiatives have been used to monitor public spaces for more than two decades (Ratcliffe, et al., 2009). CCTV systems are considered to be a part of the panoptic model of surveillance, which goes back to the model devised in the 18th century (Bentham, 1791). The panoptic model of surveillance is a model which sees the behaviour and conduct of the people being controlled by putting them under surveillance; the idea is that people are aware that they are under surveillance (as when people are informed that a particular place is under CCTV surveillance), but the person that is watching them is not visible to them and there is no way of knowing that the person is actually watching them, there is just the possibility of that (Lyon, 2007). The question that this essay seeks to answer is whether such a system is actually effective in reduction of crime and if so what empirical evidence can be presented to support that contention. The essay finds that there is a significant effect of CCTV systems on reduction of crimes in car parks. Not as significant, but still reduction of crime is seen in the use of CCTV systems in residential areas as well.


CCTV systems and reduction of crime: Theory and empirical evidence

The idea that surveillance or rather the awareness of people that they are under surveillance would lead to reduction of misbehaviour was first proposed in the concept of Panopticon by 19th century English philosopher and legal theorist Jeremy Bentham (Bentham, 1791). The idea proposed by Bentham (1791) in Panopticon was that if people knew that they were under surveillance, they would be constrained to be on their best behaviour (Jewkes & Johnston, 2012). Originally, this idea was meant to be practiced within the penal system so that those in jail for crimes would be put under surveillance of the jailor due to the peculiar design of the prison itself, allowing the jailor and authorities to see into any cell at any point of time from a position of vantage (Bentham, 1791). However, the idea of the panopticon could be applied as a social control method in any setting, so that the awareness of the surveillance itself would lead to the unilateral power for the person watching the conduct of the others (Lyon, 2007).

Clearly, CCTV surveillance as a panopticon model creates a unilateral power for someone who is controlling the surveillance (Lyon, 2007). It has been argued that the model of the panopticon can be useful in reforming the modernist disciplinary society because in such a system, there is no physical dominance over the body of a person, but the fact of being constantly under surveillance may lead to the reform of the individual (Foucault, 1977). There are some useful criticisms of the panopticon model as well, which would also apply to the CCTV systems as well. For instance, Lyon (2007) argues that technologies cannot always justify the manufacturers’ and political proponents’ claims and the systems may be resisted or manipulated and negotiated. All surveillance systems, including the CCTV systems are exposed or susceptible to manipulation as argued by Lyon (2007). This would mean that the CCTV systems may at times fail to control crime or reduce it because instead of modulating their behaviour, people may be able to find ways to manipulate the system (Lyon, 2007). Another criticism of the CCTV systems in context of public policy is that it may lead to the intrusion of privacy of citizens, expenditure of public money (if the systems are installed by the government) and may not be as effective that would justify the use of the systems in the first place (Heek, et al., 2017). Such arguments raise public policy issues with reference to installation of the CCTV systems. While these issues are not a part of the discussion in this essay, these issues are mentioned to provide a background against which it becomes essential to consider the effectiveness of the CCTV systems before these systems are applied in public spaces because the costs of the application of the systems may not be justified if the systems are not effective in controlling or reducing crime rates. In the following sections, empirical evidence is presented which shows the areas of effectiveness of the CCTV systems.

In a study conducted in Philadelphia, USA, which used two evaluation techniques: hierarchical linear modelling and weighted displacement quotients, the researchers found that the use of CCTV cameras in public spaces had mixed results with respect to crime reduction. In certain areas, introduction of CCTV cameras led to 13% reduction in crime; but there were some sites that showed no benefit of the installation of the cameras (Ratcliffe, et al., 2009). Another important finding of the study is that CCTV surveillance may have impact on certain kinds of crimes while not impact certain other types of crime to a great extent. In the study, it was found that the decline in crime rate by more that 13% was due to the decline in disorder offenses, but not in serious crimes (Ratcliffe, et al., 2009). However, Ratcliffe, et al. (2009) caution that this finding may be due to the fact that there were coefficients of seasonality and the length of month that would influence the numbers on serious street crime and that the coefficients for these variables were not statistically significant in the period of the research; therefore, the finding with respect to the serious crimes may not be accurate in this study (Ratcliffe, et al., 2009).

In a study by Armitage (2002) conducted in the UK, it was found that the evidence on whether CCTV systems are effective in reducing crime is inconclusive. The study does mention a number of other studies that have found that CCTV surveillance has led to the reduction in crime especially with relation to property crimes, however the study also mentions empirical evidence that shows that CCTV surveillance has lesser impact on reduction of personal crime (Armitage, 2002). However, this is an old study. A newer study which used a systematic review and meta-synthesis of the earlier studies, found that CCTV is associated decrease in crime, which may vary between significant to modest effects (Piza, et al., 2019). The study found that the most consistent effects of CCTV surveillance are observed in car parks (Piza, et al., 2019). Residential areas too are found to see significant reduction in crime after the installation of the CCTV cameras (Piza, et al., 2019).

CCTV schemes if employed along with other interventions were found to generate larger effect sizes as compared to schemes that do not deploy single or no other interventions with CCTV schemes (Piza, et al., 2019). This is an important finding as it links CCTV systems with other interventions and goes to emphasise that the effectiveness of CCTV systems in controlling or reducing crime rates depends on combination of factors, one of which may be the accompanying schemes that may be pressed into service along with CCTV systems. Piza, et al. (2019) found that if there are multiple interventions alongside CCTV, then there is a greater effect on reduction of crime; however, if CCTV is the only intervention, then the effect may not be as significant (Piza, et al., 2019). Another important and related point is that if the CCTV schemes are actively monitored then there is significant reduction in crime; but if the CCTV scheme is only passively monitored, reductions in crime is not significant (Piza, et al., 2019). The policy implication of this finding is that in order to have an effective link between installation of CCTV cameras and reduction in crime rate, public safety agencies should actively monitor the camera so as to identify and address incidents of concern (Piza, et al., 2019).

A new study based in Cincinnati, Ohio (USA), which used hierarchical linear modelling was conducted with 84 repeated measures across 34 camera locations (Lim & Wilcox, 2017). As per the findings of this study there is minimal evidence of the effectiveness of CCTV in reducing crime (Lim & Wilcox, 2017). However, some kinds of crimes, particularly, though property crimes and crimes in residential areas were reduced after the installation of the CCTV systems in these areas, thus supporting the contention that CCTV systems can help in controlling or reducing crimes (Lim & Wilcox, 2017). An important point that may be noted here is that there is a significant increase in residential CCTV camera use in the United States as compared to the United Kingdom where the increased use of CCTV camera usage is seen in car parks (Piza, et al., 2019). When this fact is seen in the context of studies that show that CCTV cameras have shown more significant effects on reduction in crime in the UK as compared to the United States, one may infer that the effect being more significant in car parks (Welsh & Farrington, 2009; Piza, et al., 2019), UK shows better rates of reduction in crimes after the installation of CCTV cameras. It may also be inferred from the above that comparing two countries’ experiences in reduction of crimes due to CCTV systems may not always lead to accurate results because the effectiveness of CCTV systems may depend on a combination of factors of which location is the most important as per the research on this topic (Piza, et al., 2019; Heek, et al., 2017).

Another study that included 44 evaluations and examined the effect of CCTV systems in settings that included diverse settings like city, town centres, public housing, public transport, and car parks, found that there was a 16% reduction in crime (Welsh & Farrington, 2009). The crime reduction in car parks was the most significant with a 51% reduction (Welsh & Farrington, 2009). The findings of this study are reiterated in the findings of another study conducted recently, which shows that there is a significant reduction of crime after installation of CCTV systems in car parks (Piza, et al., 2019).


To conclude, two important points are made out based on the empirical evidence used in the essay. First, the reduction of crime due to the use of CCTV systems is not uniformly seen across different settings and different kinds of crimes. There is a significant reduction of crime in car parks if the CCTV cameras are installed, and to a lesser degree in residential areas; but similar reduction in crime is not seen across all settings. CCTV systems have more impact on reduction of property related crimes, bur similar reduction is not seen in context of personal crimes. Second, CCTV systems are the most effective when they are used along with other interventions and where the systems are actively monitored. Where CCTV systems are the only interventions and the monitoring of the system is passive rather than active, there is less impact of the use of the CCTV systems on the reduction of crimes. Therefore, from this it may be finally concluded that CCTV systems are not always effective in reducing crime and all kinds of crimes. The effect of the CCTV in reduction of crime is seen where there is a combination of factors involved. CCTV systems’ installation in itself is not a predictor of reduction of crime. This has policy implications where CCTV installation has been undertaken as a public function and public money is expended to install CCTV systems. In such contexts, the effectiveness of the CCTV systems in controlling or reducing crime is an important question which needs to be considered in the relevant contexts (location, etc) before public money is expended on installation of the systems where they may not be as effective.

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  • Armitage, R., 2002. To CCTV or not to CCTV. A review of current research into the effectiveness of CCTV systems in reducing crime , p. 8 .Bentham, J., 1791. Panopticon Or the Inspection House. London: T Payne.
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  • Heek, O.-v., Julia, K. A. & Ziefle, M., 2017. All Eyes on You! Impact of Location, Camera Type, and Privacy-Security-Trade-off on the Acceptance of Surveillance Technologies. In: Smart Cities, Green Technologies, and Intelligent Transport Systems. Cham: Springer, pp. 131-149.
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  • Lyon, D., 2007. Explaining surveillance. In: D. Lyon, ed. Surveillance studies: an overview. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 46-70.
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  • Welsh, B. C. & Farrington, D. P., 2009. Public area CCTV and crime prevention: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Justice Quarterly, Volume 26, p. 716–745.

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