City’s expensive security plan ignores real issues behind crime

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For the most part, I try to avoid taking part in any criminal activity just like every other law-abiding, nose-to-the-grindstone, best-foot-forward Carnegie Mellon student. I also love Pittsburgh just like every Carnegie Mellon student, but I’m starting to have some serious problems with the way the city deals with its public safety issues.

Last week, Pittsburgh City Council took the first step in approving Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s security plan. The plan would install a system of security cameras throughout the city in addition to enacting several other public safety initiatives. The proposal would initially place two cameras on each of the bridges straddling the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers. City Council approved the use of $2.59 million in federal grants for the project.

To be honest, when I first read about Mayor Ravenstahl’s plan, the first thing that popped into my head wasn’t “Whoa, Pittsburgh’s gonna be a whole lot safer. Thanks, Mayor!” What did pop into my head was, “Whoa, this is going to do absolutely nothing. Thanks, Mayor.” It seemed to me like a misguided use of funds that will take away the privacy of Pittsburghers. In return we’ll receive... absolutely nothing.

Many cities have started to create surveillance systems to deal with crime. However, among all the studies that have been done, none show that that they resulted in a significant decrease in crime. One example is Tampa, Fla., which installed a facial recognition device in 2001 but removed it a few years later after it failed to lead to any arrests. No studies have shown that city-wide surveillance systems do anything to prevent crime.

Plus, criminals will find a way around the system. That’s why they’re criminals. Criminal activity will just move away from the line of sight of the cameras, or suspects will find ways to shield their faces. And if they’re not smart enough to do that, then they’ll probably be caught anyway, with or without cameras.

Still, after watching reports on KDKA, I was shocked to find many Pittsburghers see no problem with the city’s plan. These people may not be fully aware of the entire security plan that the city has in store for us. Placing cameras on bridges is only the first step in an extensive surveillance program.

When announced back in June, the initial plan called for a $3.4 million initiative to place security cameras Downtown and throughout the city, adding around 83 cameras to the approximately 150 already in place.
Additionally, the surveillance system would include license detection devices that can capture plate information and run it through a database. As much as I would love city officials to see my L8RH8R custom license plate, all this seems a little obtrusive.

City Information Systems Director Howard Stern has stated that the council plans to include a privacy policy clause in the legislation before the final vote to approve the plan on Tuesday, but the plan has yet to set any restrictions on who will have access to the information and how it will be stored and shared. Mayor Ravenstahl has also expressed the possibility of joint ownership of the system and the sharing of information with both public and private safety forces in the area.

While the existence of footage of me walking to campus or stuffing food in my face doesn’t necessarily concern me, I am worried about the effect that a city full of cameras will have on the psyche of those being filmed. Think of everything you’ve ever done outside of your own private home, all the establishments that you’ve ever entered. Would you like to have zero control over who views this footage? Would you enjoy the possibility of it emerging again sometime in the future? While it may not be criminal behavior, everyone does some things that they don’t want taken out of context and seen by everyone with access to these security cameras.

I’m fully aware that crime in the city is on the rise, and I appreciate that the city is taking steps to combat it. It just seems like filming the crimes that occur along with documenting the daily activities of law-abiding Pittsburghers is not a proactive way to decrease crime.

The city’s goal is to target crime directly by placing cameras in neighborhoods where crime statistics show a lot of criminal activity. The intended neighborhoods for this plan have not yet been identified, which says very little about the effectiveness of this plan and more about the possibility that poorer neighborhoods or areas with a high percentage of minorities may be unfairly monitored.

If police and the city already know where crime is happening, wouldn’t it be more practical and cost-effective to put more police there instead of installing $3 million worth of surveillance cameras? Perhaps instead police could work to find the deep-seated reason behind the crime — or create programs that would not only work toward crime reduction, but overall community development.

I don’t know the way to prevent crime. Officials in urban areas have been trying to figure that out for a long time. However, installing cameras won’t suddenly make criminals have an epiphany and completely turn their lives around. There are more complex reasons that city officials will have to work with before crime can be reduced. The process may not be as easy as slapping a camera on the side of a building, but it definitely makes a lot more sense.