Surveillance Cameras In Parks

News Release: 
Friday, December 4, 2009

Urban Politics #258, 6/10/08
By City Councilmember Nick Licata

Yesterday, Monday June 9th, the City Council took two votes on placing surveillance cameras in three parks for a trial period of no more than 21 months.

Council Bill 116226 authorized the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) to install them and released $850,000 to do so and the second bill CB 116225, restricted DPR to a pilot program and set up policies by ordinance for the use and installation of such cameras.


I cast the lone no vote on the first bill. I voted against authorizing the installation because I felt that there is little if any information available to us that surveillance cameras actually reduce crime or lead to higher convictions. I initially thought that they might and had voted in favor of them in the Parks Committee two weeks ago. But the only evidence that has come to light has been that provided from the vast array of surveillance cameras at work in London, England. And their experience was summarized by London Yard Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, the officer in charge of the Metropolitan police unit, who said 'It's been an utter fiasco: only 3% of crimes were solved.' And a recent London study showed similar results with regards to deterring crime.

On the other hand there are piles of studies that show the greatest deterrent to criminal and uncivil behavior in public parks is through active social programming and the presence of police or similar official personnel such as our new Park Rangers which will patrol these same parks. Granted these approaches are more expensive than relying on remote cameras but they are also more effective. I tend to think that wherever possible human interaction is superior than relying on technology for solving social problems. In 2008, the $45,000 cost of one surveillance camera is equivalent to 774 hours of overtime pay for police.

Aside from the effectiveness of the use of surveillance cameras, I was also jarred into re-thinking this issue when someone asked me after the first committee vote, if the City would have adopted this strategy before the tragic events of 9-11. I think the answer would have been no. As many have said since the attack on the World Trade Center, we live in a different world.

It's a world becoming based on fear and suspicion of the unknown and the unfamiliar. It's a world that has us looking over our shoulder to see who might be lurking around. And perhaps we would feel better if we had a big brother providing that extra pair of eyes for us. Where do we draw the line? When should a free society have personal activities that occur in public come under 7/24 surveillance? We need to strike a balance that provides for safety without compromising the underlying principles of our democracy.


As it became apparent that the Council would approve installing the cameras, I worked closely with a number of Council Members and with the ACLU to limit the cameras to a pilot program with tight controls that are legislated by ordinance to help protect citizen's civil rights. The Mayor's proposal was an administrative policy that could be changed without Council or public review and would not have been legally binding.

I voted with the rest of the Council on Council Bill 116225, which set protocols for the use of the surveillance cameras in the parks and would limit their use to Cal Anderson, Hing Hay, Occidental and Victor Steinbrueck Parks and for a period of no more than 21 months. Additional amendments that I sponsored placed limits on who can view the video and under what circumstances. I supported maintaining the requirement for a public meeting prior to camera installation in each of the parks that do not have cameras yet.

The bill also mandates an evaluation by the City Auditor to determine among other things whether the cameras affects how the public perceives park safety as well an analysis of various crime statistics to determine if crime had actually been reduced. I amended the legislation to require the City Council to consider the Auditors' report conclusions about the deterrence effects of the cameras on crime before authorizing continued operation of the cameras beyond the pilot program.

Evaluating this pilot project is critical because if it is done poorly then I fear that the results will be inconclusive and there will be a renewed push to extend surveillance cameras to other parks or to areas adjoining our parks. The City's crime data supporting the need for cameras in these 4 parks shows that most of the crimes occur outside of the 4 parks. If we try to pursue with cameras crime events as locations shift we could become like London, with thousands of surveillance cameras throughout the city, not a very cheap or effective use of our public safety dollars.

Most of the concerns that citizens have about activity in the parks is of a misdemeanor nature. And most that activity is dealt through the use of our parks exclusion ordinance which excludes people from a particular park for a specified period of time. It has been used well over a hundred times last year at each of the four parks receiving cameras. The surveillance cameras will not be 'live' in that someone will be sitting monitoring them all the time while they are on. Consequently, they will be most effective in identifying suspected offenders for follow up work. But as the Chief Investigator from London noted, surveillance cameras have had very little measurable success in solving crimes.