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.