CCTV cameras – more eyes to fight crime

Home Edition, Straits Times, 17 October 2011. Source: http://www.straitstimes.com/BreakingNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_724199.html

IT HANGS over a back alley in Geylang, looking more like a street lamp than what it really is – a police video surveillance camera that swivels 360 degrees, tilts, pans, and zooms in close enough to read the script off a pimp’s tattoo. And it is in many places. The Ministry of Home Affairs announced over the weekend that it will expand the existing network of police closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs) in local neighbourhoods across Singapore to prevent and solve crime

Details of the project – such as how many, and where these video cameras will go up – are being worked out. In an e-mail reply to The Straits Times, police said the cameras’ locations are chosen with ‘crime, security, and public order considerations in mind’.

‘Due to resource constraints, the police will have to prioritise the deployment of CCTV cameras,’ the statement added.

‘As these are portable cameras, they can be moved from one location to another when the situation calls for it.’ Police did not say how many CCTVs it currently monitors, but in 2008, there were about 350 cameras in public areas like Boat Quay, Geylang and Little India.

Additional cameras have also been installed in iconic areas, such as Suntec City and the Helix Bridge, and in HDB estates to curb loan-sharking activities.

A visit to six areas – Boat Quay, Geylang, Little India, Shenton Way, Jalan Besar, and Ang Mo Kio – found police cameras on major roadways, traffic junctions, office buildings, carparks, street alleys, and lift landings. Some had been installed as early as 2003, others as recently as six months ago. Several had signs indicating that the cameras were in operation.

The cameras are connected wirelessly and captured images are streamed ‘live’ to a command centre, where they are viewed and stored centrally. Police said they help investigations when a crime is reported, and in police operations. Like Singapore, other densely-developed cities also use CCTVs. Britain, for example, has four million cameras, a quarter of them in London alone.

Studies on their effectiveness in reducing crime, however, have returned varying conclusions. Using 2005 to 2007 data from Philadelphia city police, American criminologists found that the number of locations in which CCTVs reduced crime was equal to those where there was no clear impact.

A 2003 joint study by Northeastern University in the United States, and Cambridge University in Britain comparing CCTVs with street lights, found both to be better at reducing property crime than violent crime.

It also concluded: In enclosed areas such as carparks, cameras deter crimes more effectively than street lights; in open public spaces, however, the latter were superior.

In Singapore, people who live and work close to CCTVs said they liked having an extra pair of eyes around. But a handful felt they were invasive.

Overall, however, the consensus was that electronic surveillance has made them feel safer, and life more peaceful. At The Amazing Inn in Lorong 14, Geylang, a receptionist said that police put up cameras in its back alley last year after guests complained of illegal gambling.

‘Not only that, people also used to sell illegal cigarettes – a lot of them, in 2009,’ added the receptionist who wanted to known only as Madam Lee. ‘Now, you go and see, nobody’s there.’

For some residents and business operators, however, having nobody around posed another worry.

‘This area already has a reputation of being a bit chaotic,’ said Mr William Ng, 60, a resident of Wing Fong Court at the junction of Talma Road and Lorong 14. ‘Now the CCTVs make it seem like it is dangerous, too.’ Workers in different shops along Geylang Road said business dipped somewhat after the cameras were installed. In Little India, shopkeepers said a handful of CCTVs in an open area in Lembu Road facing Desker Road made the place safer.

‘People come to walk around here, they feel less nervous,’ said a worker at Ever Success Auto Parts, adding that the area was now less disorderly, with fewer foreign nationals congregating there.

Mr Jeffrey Yu, the operations manager of Charlie’s Tapas, Grill & Bar in Boat Quay, said tourists feel safer when they know the police are watching – albeit from afar. The bar has bought 10 CCTVs of its own to be put up next month. In 2005, town councils began working with police to put up about 600 cameras in selected HDB blocks to monitor areas such as void decks and carparks.

In Ang Mo Kio, 26 blocks were outfitted with cameras in lifts, corridors, and stairwells, after complaints of loan shark harassment became ‘almost a daily experience’, said Mr Inderjit Singh, an MP in the GRC. Once the cameras went up, the problem was reduced.

At Block 134 in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3, resident Ng Kwee Bee, 44, said that she initially felt uneasy after noticing the cameras for the first time last year.

That was until a neighbour told her that loan sharks had defaced a unit above her floor with red paint. ‘After that, I think, better put more,’ the housewife said in Mandarin.

Residents in Ulu Pandan and Kreta Ayer have also made similar requests to their town councils, said Mr Chrisopher de Souza and Dr Lily Neo, MPs who serve the two areas respectively.

Police here said that CCTVs do more than deter troublemakers; they also help nab criminals by corroborating testimony from witnesses or tracing suspects.

Security experts cautioned that CCTVs, while useful as a deterrent, have limited impact in large, unmanned areas where the lighting and camera position may not be ideal. Still, they are worth the investment, if only for peace of mind, said Mr Ben Ng, the managing director of Acepro Security, a security consultancy. ‘If you wait for bad things to happen before putting one up, it is already too late.’

BACKGROUND STORY
The cameras are connected wirelessly and captured images are streamed ‘live’ to a command centre, where they are viewed and stored centrally. Police said they help investigations when a crime is reported, and in police operations.

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