A few years ago in Central America, an older gentlemen said to me "I like the way you Americans have so much respect for your laws."
He then told a story of when he was visiting the U.S., and how he noticed people obeying every stop sign, although there were no other cars or law enforcement in the immediate area.
It was interesting that he thought Americans were more law-abiding, and there's no doubt his theory could have been easily argued. But then I thought, maybe all of the surveillance cameras in the United States have made us more mindful of costly fines and arrest, but it's hard to tell.
In a report released last year by the research company Urban Institute, it was suggested that surveillance cameras aren't always the answer when it comes to thwarting criminal activity.
"Our study is interesting because it suggests that cameras can have a very powerful impact on crime, and a cost beneficial one," said Urban Institute's Director and one of the study authors of the report. "But it also suggests cameras don't work in all places and all contexts."
The video surveillance report focused on crime percentages in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Chicago.
After cameras were installed in the Chicago neighborhood of Humboldt Park in 2003, police noticed a 20 percent drop in crime just one month after the cameras were set-up. However, in the neighboring area of West Garfield Park, crime rates remained the same and the cameras provided no impact.
The report showed the effectiveness of the surveillance camera’s fluctuated depending on how the cameras where installed and how closely they were monitored.
"Overall, the cameras — when actively monitored — were effective at cutting down crime," said the report. "And the savings and benefits of fewer crimes outweighed the cost of the surveillance system."
The study also found that $190,000 each month was spent on surveillance cameras, but the city saved about $815,000 on costs that would be spent during the criminal justice process.
However, not everyone believes surveillance cameras are worth the cost.
In a separate report conducted by the Berkeley, Calif. research group Citrus, it was found that cameras installed throughout San Francisco neighborhoods failed to reduce the rate of violent crimes. Researchers found that much of the criminal activity simply moved outside of the camera's range.
The findings were determined by Citrus researchers Jennifer King and Steven Raphael, who examined daily crimes, and where they were committed in relation to the surveillance camera. They also studied the type of crimes that were being perpetrated on a daily basis.
After researchers compared those crime statistics to numbers before cameras were installed, they saw no significant drop in rates as it pertained to burglaries or violent criminal activity.
However, smaller crimes like pick-pocketing and petty thefts went down after the cameras were placed.
Not going away
Though there are conflicting reports about the true effectiveness of video surveillance in residential neighborhoods, it's apparent that cameras aren't going away anytime soon. In fact, they're becoming increasingly advanced in their functions.
The architectural lighting company Illuminating Concepts recently made a series of talking and listening surveillance cameras, and U.S. residents should expect to see these contraptions in neighborhoods very soon.
That's right, on your next trip to the movies or dinner you could be hearing announcements, traffic news, and advertisements blaring from the street lamp-post. The invasive camera will also have the ability to record and pick up sound from people or objects nearby.
While some believe these talking cameras are a necessary security measure in a post 9/11 world, many people feel like they're characters in a new version of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" novel.
It's safe to assume that most people think catching or preventing a crime through video surveillance is a great thing, but many don't like being watched, especially since they're conscious of being law-abiding citizens.
No other type of surveillance video affects more everyday citizens than traffic or speed-detection cameras, and many consumers have stood up against more being installed.
In early July of ths year, the New York Senate struck down a law that would have added nearly 40 new speed-detection cameras throughout the five boroughs of New York City.
While some believe traffic videos are needed, many believe cameras are really attached to money-making agendas and spiteful city quotas.
"The cameras are not about safety; they're about generating revenue for municipalities, said Mike Doherty, a New Jersey state senator. "The towns are using their citizens as cash cows."
In places like New Jersey, Houston and Los Angeles, camera debates have grown extremely contentious and in 2012 there are still 12 states that refuse to install speed-detection cameras on stop lights or lamp-posts.
According to the Govenors Highway Safety Association, there are 29 states that have no regulations concerning traffic camera use.
Additionally, 13 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands have speed-detection cameras posted in at least one location.
In Washington D.C. traffic fines have increased 500 percent since 2008, and some district officials believe D.C. residents are being unjustly slapped witih fines that range from $75 to $250 per violation.
"The goal is to make sure the automated enforcement program is about safety, not just revenue, said Councilman Tommy Wells.
According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, Washington D.C. brought in $55 million in traffic camera fines in 2011, and those in favor of not reducing the violation amount says it keeps drivers in check and increases traffic safety. But many disagree.
"If we can entice drivers to follow the law without having to have very high fines, then we should," said David Alpert, D.C. community activist. "Research shows it's more effective to catch people more often but charge them less."