- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

The promising technical fix to a stubborn, age-old problem is what city governments find so alluring about crime cameras. But it’s an illusion.

Catching criminals on camera has done little to stop violence in Baltimore, Chicago, New York and San Francisco in recent years and come at substantial cost to civil liberties. Now, in Washington, with 48 cameras installed in high-crime neighborhoods as part of the response to this summer’s crime-emergency, we are about to have our first taste of their failure.

There were 11 shootings this past weekend in Washington, and four of them were fatal. One of them, on the 1600 block of Kenilworth Avenue NE on Sunday, was caught on camera. That shooting, which took the life of 36-year-old D.C. resident Landen Hughes Mayo and is still under investigation, will be the first test of D.C. crime cameras’ murder-solving usefulness.

Experience from other American cities offers practically no encouragement. “Generally, the State’s Attorney’s Office has not found them to be a useful tool to prosecutors,” said Baltimore state’s attorney’s office spokeswoman Margaret Burns to The Washington Times in August, when the District’s cameras were authorized. The reasons vary. In some cases the images are too fuzzy or grainy. In other cases the killers evade the cameras altogether. They simply commit crimes where cameras aren’t.

Advocates of cameras often point to London, where the tools are credited with a steep reduction in crime. This is a red herring. No American wants to be smothered in surveillance as Londoners currently are. The monitoring of financial transactions, international phone calls and reasonable use to guard against terrorist threats are one thing; the ever-present recording of everyday life to combat an old problem is quite another. We do not want some omnipresent Big Brother monitoring our every move.

Police Chief Chuck Ramsey touts both the crime-deterrent and the crime-solving potential of cameras. Meanwhile, we don’t hear nearly enough talk about the true remedy to violent crime, which would be hiring more police officers to bolster a strapped and often overworked police force.

About the best to be said of the cameras is this: They’re not an unjustifiable revenue gimmick like the city’s red-light cameras. But that’s only to say that good intentions underlie the push to install them. That’s not nearly enough — especially given the obvious civil-liberties costs they entail. City Hall needs to recognize that there is no easy fix to violent crime and start hiring more officers to patrol the streets — and granting the police department the other tools and resources necessary to maintain a stronger presence.

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