Owen Courreges: Big Brother wants to watch you (again)

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Owen Courreges

This past week I had occasion to imagine police Chief Ronal Serpas as some latter day Victor Frankenstein. Serpas, presumably clasping his hands in a maniacal manner, announced his intention to reanimate something best left dead in the proverbial ground.

What is this metaphorical corpse of which I speak? Why, the New Orleans crime camera program. Serpas has seen fit to spit in the face of God and nature (well, at least the face of good government) and propose that the crime cameras, those icons of corruption and graft, be brought back on-line. The electricity, I’m told, will be provided via a lightening rod mounted on police headquarters, a.k.a. “Castle Serpas.”

When reached for comment, Serpas gesticulated madly and shouted “IT’S ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE!”

OK, OK. I made up those last bits. Admittedly, Serpas isn’t Dr. Frankenstein (he looks more like Igor). Nevertheless, Serpas is exhibiting Victor’s obsessive fixation with conquering death. Yet while Victor Frankenstein wanted to overcome death in the literal sense, Serpas just wants to lower New Orleans’ violent crime rate.

Lately, Serpas’ performance as police chief has been widely panned because he promised a slight reduction in the city’s murder rate, which actually increased last year.

Although I’m hardly a Serpas cheerleader, I sympathize with his position. The police have a very limited ability to actually prevent crimes from occurring. Even if the local constabulary is “Johnny on the spot” and executes its duties with surprising alacrity, that’s not going to change the cultural factors that impel “Angola Joe” to solve some run-of-the-mill beef at the barrel of a gun.

As a rule, police are reactive. They patrol, but they can’t be everywhere at once. Only rarely do crimes occur in the presence of the police, and the value of an officer as a deterrent tends to end the moment they round the corner.
Accordingly, it’s tempting for police to push for a public surveillance system to increase their presence. There are only two problems with the concept: First, crime cameras don’t work. Secondly, they reek of “Big Brother.”

Criminals are stupid. However, if evolutionary theory teaches us anything, it’s that even lower life forms can adapt to surrounding circumstances. Thus, criminals will tend to commit their crimes outside of view of crime cameras (or they just won’t care, in which case they probably wouldn’t have been to difficult to track down anyway).

Britain is an object lesson in this regard. Those Limeys have crime cameras everywhere. There are over a million crime cameras in London alone. If you check your sphincter, you might find an electronic device labeled “Her Royal Majesty’s Rectal-Cam” crammed up there.

Some people might not mind walking around bow-legged if it meant that they were actually made safer, but no – Britain is far worse than the United States in terms of violent crime. In 2009, the U.K. had over 2,034 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, compared with a national average of 466 in the United States and a rate of 777 per 100,000 residents in New Orleans. Even allowing for some differences in reporting, those are pretty awful numbers.

This is not to say that crime cameras can’t help solve or even prevent some crimes, but it does raise questions as to their effectiveness. A senior officer with Scotland Yard recently reported in the U.K. that for every 1,000 crime cameras, only one measly crime was solved per year. Shockingly, criminals have learned where the cameras are and don’t commit crimes in front of them.

None of this deters Serpas. Apparently, either he’s ignorant of the facts or, like a dedicated gambler, he just feels lucky.

Let’s pretend I’m more cynical than that (as if there were any need) and not give Serpas the benefit of ignorance. The reality is that Serpas is positing a short lag between the time the cameras are installed and the time criminals realize where they are. Thus, a few crimes will likely be solved in the very short term and he can claim some measure of victory.

Yet even if the cameras were effective, they’d still be a bad idea.

Although people have no expectation of privacy in public, there’s something unnerving about the government having cameras everywhere in public spaces. It’s different for private homes and businesses to have cameras; except in emergencies the police have to subpoena private surveillance tapes. Crime cameras give police ready access to all activities in a certain public area twenty-four hours a day.

Crime cameras may not quite be 1984, but they’re a pretty solid step in that direction. Heck, Britain even has cameras with speakers so the monitoring officer can speak to people, a disembodied voice telling people to pick up their trash and eat their vegetables (well, at least the first one). Forget legality, that’s just downright creepy.

There are things New Orleans could do that might reduce crime. Actually addressing minor crimes rather than ignoring them, as the NOPD often does, would go a long way. The “bait bike” program is a great example of how focus on nonviolent property offenses can help catch bigger fish, not to mention improve quality of life. Likewise, the city could install more street lighting, which has been shown to be more effective at reducing crime than cameras (and comes in at a lower cost).

I may sympathize with Serpas’ position, but I can’t abide his turning to the Frankenstein’s monster that are the crime cameras. If this is the direction crime-fighting is heading, I suggest we start readying our torches and pitchforks.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

11 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Big Brother wants to watch you (again)

    • Jiang,

      Absolutely. The police should encourage people to set up their own security cameras to protect their property, with the added bonus that these cameras might catch nearby crimes. Because such cameras are private and not normally monitored, they don’t raise the “Big Brother” concerns. Also, because they are diverse and random, it’s difficult to criminals to adapt to them.

  1. It would appear that the “experts” who have studied what has “happened” in the U.K. (that’s England, Scotland and Northern Ireland – quite a bit “different” from New Orlaens) have only focused on how the “CCTV” Systems (ie. “closed circuit TV” Systems) “PREVENTED” crime from happening, by (theoretically) driving the THUGS to locales where there are no cameras. None of the reports of the so-called “experts” in the U.K. have analysed HOW MANY THUGS were apprehended, tried, convicted and incarcerated because their MUGS appeared on camera before and after their crimes had been committed. Also, in the brief time I have been “surfing the web”, I didn’t come across any in-depth studies, analyses or reports which addressed results in the three major U.S. Cities whil CCTV Systems, namely New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. Those would be very interesting. I still believe that a CCTV System in New Orleans would deter some crime, and aid in the apprehension, etc. of “the bad guys”. However, this City is so CORRUPT that much of the money that is going to be spent will go down a “rat hole” for a “system” which will NEVER work. MY SOLUTION: Every household in Uptown New Orleans should have at least one GUN, loaded and positioned in a place to be readily accessible in the event of an emergency. Every adult in the house should be trained in firearms SAFETY, and know how to use each GUN in the house. Depending on their maturity level, young adults also should be so trained. Children should be indoctrinated about GUN SAFETY and taught that they are NEVER to touch any firearm, anywhere, outside of adult supervision. Ashton O’Dwyer.

    • I “like” your “use” of the words “indoctrination,” “GUN,” and “SAFETY.” Your use of “buzzwords” produces a “feeling” of “certainty” in my “mind” that you are an “unbearable person” to spend any amount of time with.

  2. Observations: (1) Call Bryan Lagarde at ProjectNOLA.com to set your home or business up with an inexpensive HD camera — 504-298-9117 — monitored/recorded FREE forever. (2) Dunno how UCR crime stats are reported in the UK, but I imagine surveillance footage plays into the higher numbers (imagine NOLA’s numbers doubling or tripling if every street corner were monitored!). (3) If the mere presence of cameras were an effective deterrent to crime (which I doubt – crooks generally believe they can get away with stuff), then erecting a bunch of fake cameras, and moving them often, would help … but I’m pretty certain Serpas is hoping for better evidence gathering ex post facto.

    • Tim,

      People who are victims of violent crime virtually always self-report, so I don’t see what the cameras would do to significantly affect reporting. As for evidence gathering, they simply aren’t very effective for the reasons I stated.

      • There are a number of shreds of truth to your statements Owen. But the most significantly omitted fact is that eyewitness testimony in court is difficult to obtain and notoriously unreliable.

        The sort of cameras that Bryan has installed have proven effective; capturing essential identifying information, and eliminating the need for unreliable eyewitness identification.

        On another note, if this Crime Camera 2.0 program moves forward without Bryan Lagarde being identified as one of the top offerers it will raise all kinds of red flags for me about the process of the contract. The guy is an ex-cop, uber tech geek, and seriously concerned about stopping the crime problem.

  3. boathead,

    I agree that camera evidence would be useful in specific cases, but I don’t think it’s remotely cost-effective for the city to start installing cameras everywhere and, in any event, I just don’t like the idea of the government doing that. Bryan’s project is much better — private and grassroots, relying on citizen cooperation. I’ll look into getting one or two for my house since I’m on a major corner.

  4. Thanks for the kind words of encouragement, concerning our non-profit work.

    In answer to your question, over a year ago, I pitched a plan for ProjectNOLA to fix a number of the Nagin-era crime cameras, free of charge, and have them stream into our server farm (again, free of charge). With professional volunteers lined up to help, our plan was to strip-out the City’s wireless network, and bridge the camera’s wireless signal to nearby neighbors, using their Internet to then stream the signals to our servers. Needless to say, we had already proven that our plan would work, as this is how we very successfully manage our own ProjectNOLA Crime Camera System. Unfortunately, City Hall refused our assistance.

    In regards to the “New” NOLA crime camera system… while I have offered to assist (free of charge), I have not been included in their plans. Frankly, I am gravely concerned about what the City may be planning.

    I’ve seen how much good a properly implemented & managed crime camera system can do. Frankly, I would like to endorse the City’s new crime camera system. However, until I learn more about what they wish to do, and how much they wish to pay, I cannot in good faith endorse their plans.

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