February 16, 2006
Turn that camera off

I'm a little late to the party here (life is like that sometimes), but let me add my voice to those who are criticizing this bad idea from Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt.

Surveillance cameras monitored by police could be installed along Main Street in an effort to deter crime in the downtown area, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt said today.

He said the project is still in the planning stages, but he hopes to have a least five cameras up this year.

''I know a lot of people are concerned about big brother, but my response to that is if you aren't doing anything wrong why worry about it,'' he said.

Yeah, Ed Meese said more or less the same thing when he was running amok in the Justice Department in the 80s. The notion hasn't improved any with age.

Hurtt said the department needs a mix of more officers and technology to fight crime.

''I don't think anyone in this room believes we can afford to hire enough officers to put one on every corner, but we can have cameras to relay activity to the authorities,'' he said.

Hurtt said installing cameras would be less expensive than hiring officers. He said the Downtown Management District has recommended the idea and would be willing to fund the project should it be approved by the district's board.

''Once you buy the equipment and you put it in place and you have a maintenance contract in place, I would think it would be less expensive then paying officers to stand on those corners," he said.

You know, I blame CSI and 24 for this belief that surveillance cameras are a panacea for crimefighting. If only it all worked like it does on teevee. Without an investment in some expensive technology, and in the skilled people who can operate it, what you get is basically a bunch of clerks - or worse, cops who might otherwise be doing real work - watching endless hours of videotape. Doesn't sound like such a good deal to me.

If there were solid evidence that surveillance cameras actually did reduce crime, I'd be happy to engage in a discussion about whether or not the tradeoff of security for liberty was worth it. But as Scott points out, all the evidence from London, home of CCTV cameras on every street, is that it has no effect. Why would we want to emulate that?

''I think people are upset when people are robbed and killed on the streets of Houston and there is a lot of controversy about that,'' he said. ''We are trying to respond to that. I don't see a lot of people standing up and saying tax me for public safety.''

Actually, I think if there's one thing most people would be willing to pay a few bucks more in taxes for, it's better public safety. Why are we so afraid to even ask?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 16, 2006 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

Since digital surveillance cameras can be programmed to collect images only when motion of a defined magnitude and location is detected, they should be a useful tool in certain applications. It shouldn't be considered a replacement of current practice but assist what's already in place. Obviously there should be defined performance criteria placed on the operation to justify the activity, such as law-enforcement hours expended on cameras vs. criminals bagged because of it. If law enforcement isn't held accountable to a performance criteria, it's a waste of resources. This shouldn't include cameras watching cameras because they are prone to theft. Next you're going to tell me to put my cell phone camera away when someone is breaking the law.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on February 16, 2006 9:31 PM

Actually, I think if there's one thing most people would be willing to pay a few bucks more in taxes for, it's better public safety. Why are we so afraid to even ask?

City sales tax revenues are rolling in, as are property tax revenues. Does the city really NEED to ask for more, at least before we investigate other ways to pay for the investment?

To Mayor White's credit, he seems resistant to the tax-first notion.

Posted by: kevin whited on February 16, 2006 9:34 PM