Columbus debates security cameras' costs

Published 7 December 2009

The mayor of Columbus, Ohio, wants CCTVs installed in the city; a $250,000 deal with a consulting firm has been approved to study the issue, and a $1.25 million pilot project is likely to move forward; still, civil libertarians ask whether this is a wise – and effective — investment

As Columbus, Ohio, moves forward with plans to monitor neighborhoods with security cameras, civil libertarians warn that the costs — both to privacy and pocketbooks — might outweigh the benefits.

City officials are finalizing a $250,000 deal with Security Risk Management Consultants to study how Columbus should use cameras. The company designed security systems for Easton Town Center and Port Columbus.

The pilot project could cost $1.25 million, said Seth Walker, assistant public-safety director. He said the cameras will deter some types of crime. Dave Hendricks, however, writes in the Columbus Dispatch that with few exceptions, studies of camera surveillance in the United States and England have not found a statistically significant impact on crime rates. Criminals simply move to nearby areas without cameras, experts caution. “All it really does is give people the illusion of safety,” said Gary Daniels, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s regional office in Columbus.

Two separate analyses of closed-circuit television cameras in England found that the cameras deterred auto crime in parking garages, but the effectiveness of cameras in all other cases couldn’t be determined. U.S. studies have been largely inconclusive. “It’s just one tool in the overall approach to law enforcement and protection of the city,” said Chad Parris, project manager for the Columbus study. “I don’t think by any means will it be the silver bullet.”

Columbus has two mobile camera towers that help police monitor large events, and the Public Service Department uses about five mobile cameras to watch for graffiti. A dozen recreation centers also are monitored.

Most details about how and where the cameras would be used have not been worked out. Cameras would not be installed unless city-recognized civic associations volunteer for the program and vote in favor of them, Walker said. He said Security Risk Management will consider privacy when advising the city.

Mayor Michael B. Coleman first suggested using surveillance cameras in a 2007 speech. Afterward, Columbus’s top safety official visited Chicago to observe the city’s camera network and was impressed, said Antone White, Columbus’ public-safety spokesman.

About 2,200 cameras watch Chicago, linked by a fiber-optic network that helps police identify criminals and allows emergency workers to pull up footage closest to any 911 call. Signs and flashing lights warn passers-by that they are being watched. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley strongly supports the cameras and has called them the next best thing to a police officer on the street.

Despite the questions, surveillance cameras are gaining popularity. A Columbus manager for Security Products Co., a wholesaler that sells cameras to about 200 installers, said he has seen a 40 percent increase in sales in the past five years. Cameras that can be linked and monitored over the Internet are especially popular.

Some residents say they tentatively support cameras but would prefer officers on the street. “To deter crime, you need police presence,” said Frederick LaMarr, pastor of Family Missionary Baptist Church on the South Side. “The cameras will only be there to tell who did what. I think if you really want to deter crime, you (need) a squad car sitting there.”