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Do police cameras reduce crime?

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Police Camera Privacy Concerns
NYPD crime camera: too up close and personal?
NYPD crime camera: too up close and personal?
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The cost and questionable usefulness of CCTV add more fuel to fire for privacy advocates who believe they are borderline "Big Brother," and invade people's right to privacy.

To fully understand this argument, let's first look at how the police use the camera and the footage. Most police departments designate personnel to watch the footage live, and some departments watch footage as potential evidence after crimes are reported. Skeptics worry that police act more like peeping toms, homing in on women and minorities rather than criminals. For that reason, certain cameras come equipped with special features that black out when focused above the second story of a building, for instance.

Although a few instances of misuse of surveillance footage have taken place, it appears that most police view the video responsibly. If they see a crime in action on camera, they can dispatch officers to the scene. Or if a crime is reported, they review footage for evidence.

Nevertheless, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fiercely opposes police camera surveillance, citing ineffectiveness and the chance for abusing the personal information recorded. In short, the organization views it as an unnecessary intrusion into private lives based on the Fourth Amendment that protects against unlawful search and seizure.

While the ACLU and other activists remain vocal about the issue, there are legal precedents in the United States establishing the legality of this kind of public surveillance. Since the cameras are clearly marked in public areas, courts have traditionally ruled that people understand that they are in open places where privacy shouldn't be expected [source: National Institute of Justice].

Interestingly, new CCTV technology that can "recognize" faces could alleviate privacy concerns in the United States. These systems match people's faces with mug shots of repeated offenders. This could reduce the possibility of officer bias. The system chooses which faces to focus in on rather than the operator.

Despite the mixed bag of results crime cameras carry, it looks like they're another permanent fixture in today's electronic world. For more information, click on to the next page.


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