Scott: City survelliance narrow in scope

Scott argues that Philadelphia camera systems should be as expansive as Temple’s.

Zach Scott

Zach ScottWhen you think of security cameras on every street corner, the first thing that likely pops into your head is Big Brother. In Philadelphia, it’s more like Big Business.

That’s because Philly is home to only about 200 municipal security cameras. Well, actually about 155 functioning cameras and another few dozen lackluster street ornaments, according to current estimates by Mark McDonald, press secretary for Mayor Michael Nutter, in news reports. But at least this marks an upward trend. After an audit last year, City Controller Alan Butkovitz estimated that less than half of the city’s cameras actually worked. The next report on the subject is due out in either March or April.

To provide some sort of context, the city of Baltimore uses more than 600 city closed circuit television cameras, despite having less than half of the population of Philadelphia, per 2010 Census data.

In the place of city security cameras, local law enforcement officers have fostered deals with local businesses, universities and pretty much anything short of whoever currently has their iPhone out to help them track down criminals.

But the city doesn’t have unlimited access to private camera channels – it only gains access during a criminal investigation. That means that we’re no longer speaking about preventing crime, but reacting to it. Naturally, that is an important part of the criminal justice system. But it also defeats some of the purpose of installing the cameras in the first place.

I’m all for sharing, but that makes it seem more like cost-cutting on the part of the city. A closer examination of the numbers doesn’t paint a prettier picture.

To revisit those earlier statistics, Philadelphia, a city of about 146 square miles, has approximately 155 functioning security cameras directly tied to its police force. Barely more than one every square mile. On a per capita basis, that’s almost one camera for every 9,850 people.

Meanwhile, Main Campus features more than 800 security cameras, according to the 2012 Annual Security and Fire Report. That would be approximately one camera for every 43 people.

Compared to other Philadelphia universities, that is admittedly unusual. But Penn still claims 115 pan-tilt-zoom cameras, or cameras that can be controlled by a security guard operating them in the ways listed, along with hundreds of fixed, CCTV cameras. Drexel’s campus features 162 total security cameras, including 69 PTVs.

Even ignoring the nondescript “hundreds” of fixed cameras that Penn reported in its 2012 Annual Security and Fire Report, these three universities outnumber the functioning city cameras by nearly 7-to-1.

Of course, security cameras are a dicey proposition. I’ve read George Orwell’s classic “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” and I think it’s doubleplusgood that we don’t live in such a world. But they do have some benefits, and even a few specifically illuminated in Philadelphia.

In fact, a 2009 scholarly work by Temple’s own Jerry Ratcliffe and Travis Taniguchi of George Mason University, both professors of criminal justice, detailed how the implementation of 18 new security cameras in various locations throughout the city reduced overall crime by 13 percent. Admittedly, when they used a different system of analysis that accounted for the movement of crime, they found that some of it had merely been displaced to surrounding streets, therefore curbing the net success somewhat. But they still said that specific positioning of future cameras at particularly high-crime areas could have an even greater effect and be a worthwhile investment.

For some reason, there seems to be a shortage of people reporting that they would have committed a crime, but saw a camera and thought better of it. Still, it doesn’t seem to be a stretch that what drove crime down in the instances documented by Ratcliffe and Taniguchi, even if it was only by a small amount, was would-be criminals noticing the cameras and reconsidering their plans.

A part of that is undoubtedly how outright obvious it’s made that the cameras are there. Besides for the fact that they’re hardly hidden in the first place, the city also puts signs up by the cameras alerting people that the area is under surveillance. Businesses, institutions and whoever else has private CCTV cameras set up doesn’t pay the same courtesy, which means that part of the preventative element is lost.

So relying on non-public cameras may make catching criminals more feasible, but it might also be weakening the preventative consequences that come from prevalent camera placement.

City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. referred to the city’s CCTV program, including its partnerships with local businesses as having “upside potential.” It isn’t exactly clear what he means. Does the program, as it currently stands, help authorities track down criminals? Absolutely. But the upside there is mitigated to assisting officers do their jobs. If the city camera program specifically was expanded beyond the drastically limited scope that currently exists, then maybe we wouldn’t have as much crime in the first place. That sounds like a bigger upside to me.

Zack Scott can be reached at or on Twitter @ZackScott11.

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