As reported, the city of Beloit will soon have ShotSpotter surveillance cameras, which are designed to detect gunfire and explosions in near real time. The idea is that such monitoring will enable police to better combat crime – but as a resident of the Chicago area who has seen such cameras in action, I’m skeptical.
As San Fransisco has learned, surveillance cameras don’t reduce violent crime. This is likely because such crimes are committed by individuals who are not thinking rationally, and therefore don’t worry about the consequences. Another possibility is that the presence of cameras have no immediate consequences for those who commit crimes in front of them, and only a handful of people are prosecuted as a result of such camera footage, making the deterrence value low. Regardless of the reasoning, traditional surveillance cameras have been shown ineffective at reducing violent crime in cities.
However proponents of the ShotSpotter system say that these gunshot detecting cameras will succeed where others have failed, and can sometimes point to crime reduction in areas right near the cameras, which prominently say “police” and have very bright flashing blue lights. However it seems that such reductions in crime are simply the result of criminals moving their drug deals and other criminal enterprises over to the next block, where there is no such camera. Since it would be prohibitively expensive to equip every single street corner with such a camera, the criminals are able to stay in business, and overall gun related crime hasn’t declined, but is instead rising. It therefore seems to me that instead of spending millions of dollars on gunshot cameras, such funds would be better spent on more police officers, better education for inner-city children, and other programs that could have an actual impact upon violent crime.
Note that the conclusion that gunshot sensing cameras may move some crime over to the next block is not inconsistent with the above evidence that cameras don’t stop violent crime. Instead, the point is that criminals in Chicago seem to move their drug deals and other criminal enterprises a block away from the bright, flashing police cameras. When a drug dealer is shot in a gang dispute or robbery, the crime often occurs wherever the drug dealer was “working,” which just happens to be away from the camera. I doubt that the criminals who went to shoot that drug dealer would have been deterred by the cameras, even had the drug dealer been standing right under such a camera. Once again, we have a situation where correlation is not necessarily causation.
My thanks to Anders for pointing out this gunshot camera news story.