Surveillance Fail: Police Cameras That Don't Make Downtown Safer

Sees All, Knows All

Caked in bird droppings, broken and unrepaired, never connected at all, or just unwatched, too many of the dozen or so surveillance cameras on downtown streets are failing to deter crime, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times.

It's not known yet how many more of the the city's 300 police cameras are similarly out of commission.

Despite not having an inventory of the systems already installed, new surveillance cameras are still being wired to local police stations, often using redevelopment agency funds or contributions by neighborhood business associations on the presumption that surveillance cameras make streets safer.

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Closed-circuit television systems, widely touted in the 1990s as a low-cost way to augment traditional patrols, have become ubiquitous in Britain and common in many US cities, although questions have been raised about their effectiveness.

In Scotland, where video surveillance is widely used, "There is minimal evidence to suggest that (video surveillance) effectively deters crime, and in cases where crime does appear to be deterred, this effect is generally short-lived. The opinions of convicted offenders largely suggest that cameras are not perceived as a threat, particularly in situations fuelled with alcohol."

Closed-circuit television used for surveillance is not particularly high-tech: pole-mounted video cameras, some with motorized tilt and swivel mounts, beam day and night images wirelessly to command centers where officers sit in front of video monitors watching for criminal activity.

Considerably more advanced is the software that makes it possible to read and identify vehicle license plates from the video feed in real time and search police records for outstanding warrants or prior arrests.

Hardware and software apparently do their jobs effectively when they are maintained. It's the capacity of the LAPD to use and maintain the downtown surveillance system that's failing.

The department doesn't have a coordinated plan for surveillance cameras or the officers who monitor them. As a result, the systems become technological islands. And as in downtown, the they are likely to become institutional orphans, too.

The Times reported that of the dozen cameras located downtown, some never worked after installation. Some were never connected to monitors at the Central Police Station. Other cameras became inoperable and remained unusable for nearly two years (although repairs have been made recently).

Eyes Wide Shut

Officers also weren't trained to manage the surveillance system when it was installed. Recording and switching components weren't properly housed, leading to reliability problems. And no one was hired to perform routine maintenance, either in the field or at the station to keep the components working. (Similar problems were found in 2008 in other LAPD camera systems.)

The historian and cultural critic Mike Davis once speculated on downtown Los Angeles becoming a "carceral city" - a regulated zone of hyper-vigilant surveillance used as a tool of race and class suppression by the LAPD.

It turns out that Big Brother, not particularly good at system maintenance, is less of a threat than he once seemed, either to civil liberties or ciminals.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The images in this post were adapted from those taken by (top) marc and (bottom) Laura Loveday They are used under a Creative Commons License.

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