Not Big Brother

No one likes the thought of Big Brother constantly looking over one's shoulder. So it's understandable many people initially resisted the idea of blanketing the city with police surveillance cameras that record everything that happens within their field of view.

Of course, no one wants to be the victim of a crime either, which is why a new report on the effectiveness of cameras in deterring would-be criminals should prove reassuring.

The study, conducted by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, found that Baltimore's network of more than 500 police surveillance cameras has been a highly cost-effective deterrent to the kind of street crime that most concerns residents. Not only have the cameras driven down the incidence of crime where they are installed, they've also more than repaid taxpayers' investment through savings in the criminal justice system and for medical treatment.

To be sure, the cameras are not a panacea, and they certainly are no substitute for a robust police presence in high-crime neighborhoods and the city's downtown. They can't stop a crime in progress or even alert authorities to the fact that one is occurring quickly enough for officers to respond in time to catch the culprits. And while they can help investigators piece together the sequence of events after the fact and even identify possible suspects, it's rare for prosecutors to base cases solely or even primarily on the evidence of crime-scene surveillance footage.

What the cameras do exceedingly well, however, is act as a deterrent in much the same way a police officer posted on the corner might. In that sense, they're an extension of the eyes and ears of the policeman on the beat, and they're effective for exactly the same reason: People who would do others harm are apt to think twice if they believe someone may be watching.

It was telling that the opening sequence of every episode of David Simon's award-winning HBO series "The Wire" showed a Baltimore street corner from the perspective of a surveillance camera mounted high above the fray — and bad guys throwing rocks at its unblinking eye.

You can be sure those fellows weren't protesting an unwarranted intrusion on their constitutional right to privacy. They simply wanted to disable the camera's silent witness to whatever wrongdoing they were contemplating. Big Brother, it seems, for once was on the side of the good guys.

The cameras' capability to efficiently extend the reach of the city's police force should give Baltimore the encouragement it needs to expand their use around the city, especially in high crime areas, where their conspicuous blue blinking lights seem to augment their deterrent capability. The Urban Institute found Baltimore's cameras cut incidents of crime by nearly a quarter on average, and up to 35 percent in the most troubled neighborhoods.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Americans have gradually, if grudgingly, come to accept the use of surveillance cameras as an important tool for protecting public safety. In addition to the police cameras, there are thousands of such cameras installed in private businesses and commercial buildings, not to mention the ever increasing number of cameras keeping watch over highway work zones and in front of schools to deter speeding motorists.

There will always be people who view these seemingly ubiquitous devices with suspicion and disdain and find their intrusiveness Big Brotherish. But it's useful to recall that, unlike today's street cameras, the Big Brother in Orwell's classic novel "1984" actually peered into the most intimate recesses of private home life.

It's a big leap from that to systems whose overall effect generally has been to make society safer. The cameras, after all, only record activities taking place in public, a sphere in which people should not have an expectation of privacy. We may not like the idea of cameras watching over the city, but at a time when our ability to put more cops on the street is limited, they are an effective option.

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