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Eight months in, are the Ped Mall cameras worth it?

BY DI EDITORIAL STAFF | FEBRUARY 28, 2011 7:20 AM

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YES

Cameras deter crime the way storefront graffiti deters customers.

Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall is arguably the best-known and most attractive three blocks in the state. It’s the ideal district for brunch dates, specialty shopping, jolly intoxication, and monkey-bar buffoonery. The cameras monitoring this area, even if they operate more out of the placebo effect, are a vital tool for deterring crime and continuing the area’s mass appeal.

The Daily Iowan reported Feb. 24 that the cameras had been accessed only twice in the last three months, raising questions about their efficacy. Even if rarely used in criminal investigations, they provide an invaluable crime deterrent.

Vandals are undeniably inconsiderate, as well as stealthy more often than not. On a given weekend, the occurrence of more than 20 reports of vandalism to the Iowa City police is hardly unprecedented. There were 21 reports of criminal mischief over a weekend earlier this month. These numbers are especially overwhelming for those asked to bring the perpetrators to justice, and the resulting arrests made are typically far from satisfactory in the eyes of the victims.

The same person who roams the outskirts of Iowa City in search of selfish, cheap, destructive satisfaction would surely notice the security-camera signs downtown.

There is some evidence that public security cameras can deter crime. A study led by Nancy La Vigne, the director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, found that cameras are also cost-efficient. While she predicted that there would be less of an effect in low-crime areas, she attributed the camera’s effectiveness to their 24-hour operation. Iowa City’s downtown cameras also run 24 hours per day.

The cameras downtown provide peace of mind for local business owners, and their influence on the rate of criminal accountability will increase with operational familiarity. It’s still too early to cite empirical evidence of their effectiveness, but it will come, proving the city’s summer investment to be a savvy one.

— Chris Steinke

NO

Yes, in some cases surveillance cameras can be deemed necessary — in a convenience store or gas station, say, to catch robbers.

However, I remain skeptical about their effectiveness on the Pedestrian Mall. The cameras have only been used a mere two times in the last three months — both of which failed to produce the results the police were looking for.

By all means, let’s continue to use these devices if they catch hard-core criminals ransacking the Ped Mall. However, they aren’t doing so, in part because Iowa City is not an area with a high crime rate.

Sure, we have our fair share of drunk college kids making stupid, reckless decisions on any given weekend night (like any other college town); however, these situations should be easily controlled by the police that patrol downtown at all hours of the night. 

Furthermore, not only have the cameras hardly been used, but even when they are used, they aren’t producing the evidence the police need to consider a $250,000 purchase of more cameras — or even to justify their own expense, which would be unfortunate were it not a private expenditure by the Downtown Association.

Even as a deterrent, the signs for the cameras are woefully small and easy to overlook. Baseless assertions that subtle cameras provide a serious disincentive for typical drunken idiocy are not the same as solid, clear facts (and the burden of proof lies, as always, on the believer).

So while I laud the Downtown Association’s efforts, I still stand by my previous notion — the cameras should be nixed. The Downtown Association has spent the money. The cameras have been given a fair chance, but they aren’t doing the job they were installed to do.

Why should they stay? In case they need to use them two more times in the next few months? Let’s call this surveillance-state experiment what it is: a failure.

— Taylor Casey


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