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Author Peter Moskos Shares His Thoughts on Public Surveillance

Published by Ellen on July 12, 2012 7:15 AM

Dozens of U.S. metropolitan cities and small neighborhoods have been outfitted with security cameras at street corners and on high-crime blocks. Some people are in favor of public surveillance cameras as a crime prevention and police investigation tool while others see it as a violation of privacy.

According to a 2011 report from the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, average monthly crime counts in the tri-district area of Baltimore have decreased by almost 35% following the deployment of public surveillance cameras. However, other reports have suggested the opposite. The American Civil Liberties Union of North California argues that cameras in public areas haven't been able to significantly reduce crime, particularly with regard to violent crime in major cities. spoke with celebrated police author Peter Moskos to hear his opinion on public surveillance cameras and how police departments utilize them. Moskos, who has authored two books, Cop in the Hood, and most recently, In Defense of Flogging, is a former Baltimore police officer and expert in crime, punishment, and justice. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University of New York's Doctoral Program in Sociology, and has made guest appearances on CNN and other news shows for his expertise and progressive views on policing and criminology.

From Baltimore and New York to Chicago and San Francisco, public surveillance cameras, including traffic cameras, are likely in or near your city. Does public surveillance serve as an effective crime deterrent? Has it made our cities safer? Here's Moskos take on the use of public surveillance in America: As you know, surveillance cameras have been installed in several cities to catch crimes as well as prevent them. Do you think that city cameras can truly act as a crime deterrent?

Moskos: They're useful for solving things after the fact, and they do a lot of that in England with their surveillance cameras, but I think their deterrent value is pretty minimal. That's probably because people forget they're there, which is ironic, and they just become part of the scenery. It's not a magic panacea for crime. If a drug deal or another crime is caught on one of these public cameras, do you think that police officers can then immediately catch these suspects after viewing the video?

Moskos: If it's for quality of life issues, actual police officers should be out there on the streets and communities whereas cameras should help with getting convictions. It can be a great piece of evidence in getting convictions and forcing plea bargains out of people but I'd be surprised if it could help communities in the long run.

When cameras do go up, people need to be a clearer of what the goal is so that their effectiveness can judged. So it's, "Okay they've been here for five years, have they worked?" If not, we should be willing to say nice try, but we failed with that and need to move on. What about on the business-side? Do you think public surveillance cameras help to keep businesses safe from potential vandalism and burglaries?

Moskos: I do think it's more useful in business areas, but I really don't like cameras in residential areas because it seems to be institutionalizing a ghetto environment. There are so many business cameras, but most of them are private of course, and not through the city. But who's going to watch these city cameras? What about the use of cameras to record police officers' actions, like in tasers for instance?

Moskos: Cops tend to have a gut reaction against video, but it's going to help cops in the long run. As long you get the whole story and not just 15 seconds taken out of context, nine times out of ten it'll help the police. Because again people have a tough time believing how idiotic people can be, but again if the police really do mess up and it's malicious I certainly have no problem with them getting caught. But it's certainly better to have the whole story than having someone with a cell phone camera who videotapes the last half minute of it and leaves out everything up until that moment. How do you feel security cameras in squad cars?

Moskos: I think it's okay as long as they can control the on and off switch. My objection isn't with the crime so much as it is with the working environment. When you're sitting in the car for 8 hours with your partner, I just think those conversations should be private. I know they're on the clock, but they should still be able to relax. I'm against the idea of turning a police squad car into a public environment. When it comes to recording scenes though, I think more and more cops find that despite their fear they actually help them. It's interesting that a lot of police chiefs support public surveillance cameras but then some of them don't want cameras in their squad cars. What do you think about this?

Moskos: I know, and I do have a bit of a problem with "big brother" state cameras and on some level it does bother me. If they're passively recording then I do have less of an objection, but then they're less beneficial. But then if you do want to go back and look at video from earlier on, cameras are great for that. I do think that cameras have their purpose but I think it's for businesses and homes to use. Do you think public surveillance cameras are a way to replace police officers?

Moskos: Yeah, or you could say supplement them. Cops are getting fired now in certain communities just for cost-savings. I do think it's a way to attempt to get policing on the cheap, but I don't think you can actually get policing from it. Do you think cameras just displace crimes such as drug deals to the next block?

Moskos: In New York for instance, even if the cameras do move a crime like a drug deal a block away that could be good enough but it's not going to move crime out of the entire neighborhood. It's the quality of life issues that you care about which blocks they're on. Certain behavior may be more acceptable in some neighborhoods than others so if you can these criminals away from businesses and instead get them to more desolate areas, in a way that is more beneficial. But there really should be foot patrol in these areas, and cameras aren't going to eliminate drug deals because it'll just move someplace else. Do you think public surveillance cameras act as a safety tool and that people feel safer as a result?

Moskos: I think it's both, I think some do and some don't. When you describe it to some people, they may think they'll feel safer and then once they see then they actually don't feel safer. It's an illusion for the most part. What about using cameras to monitor traffic, should that be a bigger concern than placing cameras on street blocks?

Moskos: I really like the idea of red light cameras. I think they have a great role in traffic enforcement because then they really can replace the police officer and let the cop do something that actually requires policing skills. Red light cameras can in fact be a great use of money. If the goal is to save lives, then you can certainly save a lot more lives this way. I think red lights do prevent accidents time and time again.

To read more about Peter Moskos and his views on a wide variety of topics, you can visit his website We want to thank Mr. Moskos for taking the time out of his day to speak with us on public surveillance.

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the guest and not necessarily of or its employees.

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