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Editorial: Cameras No Answer To Crime Problems


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Source: Montreal Gazette (CN QU)
Published: Thursday, April 08, 2004
Copyright: 2003 The Gazette, a division of Southam Inc.
Contact: [email protected] 

Is Big Brother watching you? Starting May 1, and for the duration of the summer, he will be, in the central city blocks defined by Sherbrooke, Berri and Sanguinet Sts. and René Lévesque Blvd. People who know Montreal will recognize this area as a likely place to score some drugs. Which is why the Ville Marie borough council has approved a plan to install outdoor surveillance cameras for four months, and see what good they will do.

No one is likely to react favourably to the idea of what amounts to a giant two-way mirror in the sky. However discreet, surveillance cameras create an atmosphere of containment. They imply unsafe conditions even where these do not exist. In or out of sight, they are ugly.

But those who equate public surveillance with George Orwell need to step back, relax and ponder the realities of urban life. To walk down any public street is, ipso facto, to surrender some privacy. You don't like being watched? Then you had better stay at home. People-watching is part of everyone's Montreal summer.

If you're concerned specifically about electronic surveillance you are scarcely better off. Cameras are ubiquitous in shopping centres and other privately controlled areas that we all regard as public. As technology advances, these cameras promise to be harder and harder to detect. And face-recognition software is already with us. 

There is certainly potential for abuse in all such technology. Restrictions on such tools need to be debated, established and followed.

But will these cameras reduce drug dealing? Here the evidence is mixed. Cameras are as common as mailboxes in the United Kingdom, and the British government continues to earmark millions for the installation of new closed-circuit TV systems. Yet street crime in London is on the rise. Would there be even more crime without the surveillance? Probably, but insurance companies have noted a dispersal of urban crime to the countryside.

This phenomenon can be compared with the cleanup two decades ago of prostitution on St. Laurent Blvd. That crackdown did not suppress the industry, but moved it eastward into residential neighbourhoods, hardly an improvement. Drug dealers who fear detection by downtown surveillance cameras will not apply for honest jobs instead. They will find other places to do their business.

The point is camera surveillance - even without considering potential legal challenges to its use - is no substitute for flat-foot policing of the sort that has reduced crime substantially in New York City.

Nor is surveillance likely to improve enforcement while drug laws, particularly those related to marijuana, are as incoherent and transitional as they are today in Canada. Until we have a clear and rigourously enforced law that actually punishes acts we want to deter, what's the good of cameras?

Projet Robo-Cam, as it is called, will be a pilot project. As such, it deserves our guarded support. After the summer, let us ask the police to explain just how the cameras make their work easier and improve our lives.

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