Every week (or so), two Torontoist staffers square off to debate an issue that’s important to our city. We invite our readers to join the debate in the comments section following the post.
Way back on December 18 2006, video surveillance cameras were placed in 3 locations near Dundas Square in downtown Toronto in an experiment to see if they would serve as a deterrent against crime. Last week, after less than a month in place, the cameras were removed. While some people felt that the cameras were intrusive and intimidating to shoppers, others (including the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Association) liked the idea and have asked Mayor David Miller to have the cameras reinstalled on a permanent basis. Read on as Torontoist wades into this contentious issue.
When it comes to the design and operation of Dundas Square, there are a lot of things to complain about, but the presence of surveillance cameras is not one of them.
The last few years have seen a massive proliferation in the number of ways our images are captured. We are photographed whenever we drive our cars on the highway, or get in a cab, or use a bank machine, or purchase a six-pack at The Beer Store. At a mall, or, heaven-forbid, a casino, no one is ever off camera except in the bathroom. Add to this the hundreds of webcams that are pointed at public spaces all over the world you quickly realize that you never know when you might be on camera.
Yet, despite this massive epoch shift in the control we have over our own image, what harm has come? Who has been hurt? I mean other than Star Wars kid, and he taped himself.
On the other hand, we can certainly point to a lot of individual cases where catching the bad guys on camera has helped solve crimes. From the London subway bombings to the James Bulger kidnapping, to the recent case where Hamilton police posted a security video on YouTube and the suspect quickly turned himself in.
Of course, it’s difficult to say how much crime is stopped by cameras and how much it is just moved around. Some studies claim massive drops in overall crime, others claim no difference. What we do know is that cameras certainly make people feel safer and they also help us catch the criminals when crimes do occur. When we’re talking about a square that is supposed to be a centre for public life and a major tourist destination, then making people feel comfortable in that specific location is at least half the point.
Now, there are those who will claim that police surveillance of public spaces is just the first step in a government plan that will end, inevitably, with RFID microchips being implanted in our necks. This is a bunch of libertarian sheep dip. There is no form of surveillance more tightly regulated than that done by the state.
Your neighbour could point a webcam at your front door and keep track of your comings and goings; the mall could track your every movement from store to store and sell that information to the highest bidder, and you would never know about it. On the other hand, when the police monitor Dundas Square, not only do they have to put up notices stating that the area is under surveillance, but the entire operation is overseen by the Police Services Board and Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner, all of whom ultimately answer to the public.
If you’re looking for the real threat to public space in Dundas Square don’t point to the cameras, look instead to the massive posters of Photoshopped supermodels looking down on everyone, trying to sell perfume or jeans. That’s Big Brother in my book.
Permanent closed circuit cameras in Dundas Square? No thanks.
Sure, between banks, businesses, buildings and every teenager with a cell phone, we’re already videotaped plenty, but that’s not an argument for being comfortable with it. We have the option of avoiding businesses that use cameras if we don’t want to be on tape, but surely we shouldn’t have to keep away from public streets and parks to maintain some degree of privacy. Choosing hermitdom (hermitry? hermitness?) is not the answer.
Moreover, do you really, really trust the government or the police with those tapes? Currently there is a legal grey area around the use of the materials; do you want your drunken but harmless New Years mooning to end up on YouTube and in your moms’ inbox?
That said, it’s not just that I don’t enjoy being enveloped in the uterine warmth of the mommy state. The most compelling argument against closed circuit cameras is that they simply don’t work. In the UK, there are about 4.2 million cameras filming constantly, including more than 400,000 in London alone. In spite of all this expensive and obtrusive technology, a meta-analysis by the British Home Office found that the cameras had no meaningful effect on violent crime. Even the stupidest of criminals understand that the lens can’t see through baseball caps and hoodies. There’s also evidence of a substitution effect, where crime simply moves to areas immediately outside the view of the cameras.
Although there have been highly publicized cases where closed circuit cameras have been of value in solving crimes, it’s invariably after the fact. Cameras did hasten the identification of the London Transit bombers in 2005, but did nothing to prevent the bombings themselves. During the brief period that the cameras were up in Dundas Square, they even captured images of a shooting, but police have as yet neither identified nor arrested the gunman.
It’s been demonstrated that the most effective tools in actual crime reduction are simple – effective lighting, a visible police presence, and an alert and conscientious citizenry.
More philosophically, what does all this say about us as a society? When did we agree to hand over the responsibility for the maintenance of civilization to machines? There was a time when it was assumed that people would behave in a reasonably enlightened manner in public spaces, and encourage others to do the same. Now we’re content to pass off the responsibility for our safety to video cameras and minimum wage security guards. Have we become so morally flabby that in the face of public confrontation we mill around like escaped cattle on a freeway, observing the commotion with bovine incomprehension until someone in a uniform shows up to rescue us? Let’s hope not.