Friday, July 29, 2005

Thursday, July 21, four bombs placed on subway trains and a transit bus in London failed to detonate as planned. Police by the following day had released photos of four suspects captured by security cameras. By Monday, police had released the names of two of them. By today, I’m guessing, there are still people who object to use of video surveillance cameras, but they wouldn’t fill a Mini Cooper.

For years, privacy advocates have warned of the risks and costs of constant electronic monitoring of streets, subway stations and other sites. But events in London show cameras have a distinct upside. They helped police identify the July 7 bombers and the apparent culprits in last week’s near miss.

When these gadgets mainly served to deter petty street crime, they seemed debatable. But when the cameras help to catch terrorists bent on mass slaughter, civil liberties complaints suddenly sound pathetically trivial.

After the original bombings, most Americans were probably surprised to learn nearly all London is under constant video surveillance. With 500,000 cameras in operation, reports the Wall Street Journal, “in a single day a person could expect to be filmed 300 times.” Another 2 million cameras are scattered through the rest of the country.

But there is no evidence the average citizen feels like Winston in “1984.” Rather, most British people favor surveillance cameras, which haven’t seemed to inhibit them. The cameras apparently just make them feel safer.

There have been successes in this country, too. Chicago police place 53 surveillance cameras in high-crime areas as needed. “Our big concern when we put them up was that people wouldn’t want them,” says Chicago Police Department spokesman David Bayless. “Now, when we take them down to move them, they call and ask, ‘Where’s my camera?’ ”

The monitoring devices won support because they do something terribly worthwhile: deter troublemakers. The Chicago police have found crime typically drops in a two-block radius of each camera. Introducing cameras has coincided with a steep drop in the city’s homicide rate.

There have been equally striking results elsewhere. Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm has said, “You put a camera in a location and you have immediately a 40 percent decrease in crime for six months in that area.” Cameras helped resurrect Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park — which The Los Angeles Times notes was previously “infamous for gang shootouts, dumped bodies and used hypodermic needles.”

“The only people whom public cameras inhibit are criminals,” Manhattan Institute analyst Heather Mac Donald wrote recently in City Journal. “They liberate the law-abiding public.” That’s one reason banks, convenience stores and other businesses vulnerable to crime use them: Customers value the safety they stand to gain more than the privacy they allegedly lose.

It is unknown if targeted use of surveillance devices reduces total crime. Skeptics say criminals are merely pushed into places where they can operate without showing up on Cop TV. But that is an argument for more, rather than no, cameras.

Yet many civil libertarians still regard videocams as a gross violation of our personal space. The American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area opposed a plan for cameras in Washington, D.C., insisting they “seriously intrude on individuals’ right to privacy and have the potential to track individuals in their daily routines.”

But what privacy right? Walking down the street or sitting in a park is a public activity, visible to any passerby. It’s hard to see how my privacy is secure with 100 bystanders watching me but reduced to tatters by a single video camera.

The critics often say it would be better for law enforcement to rely on street cops rather than video surveillance. But where is the privacy advantage? A cop on every corner, or a police team in every park, would be just as intrusive as a camera. So why should anyone care if the cop watching a particular site is there in person or viewing a remote feed?

Like any crime-fighting strategy, this one has to be evaluated on whether it produces tangible gains. But for the police and citizens of London, who may have been saved from further carnage by video cameras, I suspect the debate is over.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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