Opinion: Surveillance cameras have limitations, but are worth trying in West Willow neighborhood
You can’t have a cop on every corner, as the saying goes.
So should you put a police surveillance camera on every corner instead? We’d say “no’’ to that, though we find we can support plans to install a limited number of surveillance cameras in the Ypsilanti Township neighborhood of West Willow on a trial basis this summer.
Surveillance cameras are no panacea. They invariably raise privacy concerns, and there’s mixed evidence about their effectiveness, particularly as a deterrent to crime.
File photo | AnnArbor.com
Earlier this month, the Ypsilanti Township Board of Trustees voted unanimously to approve a pilot project that will install five surveillance cameras in public areas around West Willow at a cost of $30,000. The results will be evaluated at the end of the summer.
Any time that surveillance cameras are introduced to a new area, it can raise questions about privacy, and the specter of “Big Brother.’’ But the reality is, Big Brother already is watching you, and has been for years. Surveillance cameras are in widespread use in commercial businesses and in communities across the United States, Canada and Europe. If there was to be a debate over sparing the public from the intrusive eye of security cameras, it needed to occur a couple of decades ago. The cameras are everywhere these days.
At Eastern Michigan University, for instance, public areas are monitored by some 350 security cameras, and campus Police Chief Greg O’Dell says it is “indisputable’’ that images captured by these cameras have helped detectives identify suspects and solve crimes. Ypsilanti Township officials visited EMU for a demonstration of surveillance cameras as they were considering the test project for West Willow, and came away impressed.
West Willow was considered for the pilot program because of a recent spike in violent crime there, and the potential for more violence this summer. In addition, the layout of the neighborhood is somewhat unique in that it has a limited number of entrances and exits, which makes it possible to monitor cars that come in and out.
Surveillance cameras will be placed in public areas where they can record cars entering and leaving the neighborhood, allowing a view of their license plates. Cameras also could record sections of street in front of homes or parks where there’s a concern about criminal activity.
Research has shown that surveillance cameras have little or no effect on deterring crime, and often have not resulted in a reduction in the crime rate in areas where they’ve been used. They are no substitute for police enforcement or the cooperation of citizens in fighting crime. But they have shown some value in helping solve crimes.
If these cameras were being installed as a substitute for police patrols, that would be a mistake. That’s not the case here. In fact, the township board is talking about contracting with the sheriff’s department for two additional deputies to patrol this summer. West Willow also has an active neighborhood association that’s been involved in fighting crime, and the group has shown an openness to the testing of surveillance cameras.
As long as neighbors do not have strong objections, and as long as clear policies are in place to protect the privacy of citizens, we don’t see a reason not to try surveillance cameras as part of a more comprehensive response to the spike in violent crime that West Willow saw last fall.
The township should have some standards in mind for how it will measure whether the test program is a success and that the cost is worth the benefit.
But township officials, the sheriff’s department and residents have been meeting regularly to talk about how to best address crime, and we admire their proactive approach and this commitment to work together.
Surveillance cameras have their limitations, and we can’t predict they’ll be a success in West Willow. But that’s what township officials will find out, and we can’t fault them for trying something that might play even a small role in helping make that neighborhood safer for the people who live there.
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The West Willow neighborhood is bordered to the northwest by the I-94 Service Drive, to the southwest by I-94 and to the east by Wiard Road.
(This editorial was published in today's newspaper and reflects the opinion of the Editorial Board at AnnArbor.com.)