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Video surveillance cameras are the municipal equivalent to the latest Apple product: Everyone wants them and there’s a mad rush to get them.

-Tampa Bay Times, 4/29/12

Fueled by Homeland Security grants and a (false?) sense of security, cities have installed surveillance cameras at a furious pace.

We’re now learning these systems cost a lot of money to maintain. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on their effectiveness in preventing and solving crime.

Brian Sharp of the Democrat and Chronicle revealed that at any given time, up to 25 percent of the city’s surveillance cameras are not working. Those cameras need everything from major repairs to snow dusted off. Police officers are dispatched to do the work. A colleague told me that’s like the “mayor changing light bulbs.” Now the city is looking into contracting for the repairs.

Rochester has installed 108 neighborhood cameras since 2008. The city is halting the planned purchase of a few dozen more. A dozen other cameras sit uninstalled. The mayor wants to get a handle on the program before going further.

At the same time the city is confronting the costs associated with the cameras, it’s working with a Rochester Institute of Technology graduate student who’s writing a thesis on their effectiveness. How many arrests are attributable to the cameras? How many crimes have been solved? Is there a street that was plagued with crime before the cameras that is now safer? Did the crime shift elsewhere? Are we using this technology to its maximum capability? Is the staffing of the surveillance room appropriate?

A cost benefit analysis is important. Look at ShotSpotter. City reports of 3,306 activations, only 50 crime reports were taken leading to six arrests. One Florida community dismantled the system, seeing few results.

It’s outrageous there wasn’t a comprehensive plan when Mayor Bob Duffy’s administration spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and rushed headlong into the camera system. Rochester is by no means alone. Philadelphia is experiencing the same issues.

Within the next year or so, data will come out about the effectiveness of Rochester’s red light cameras. Are they actually reducing crashes? So far, the number of tickets given at each monitored intersection has remained steady, indicating people aren’t changing their behavior.

Technology is great. But it has limits – and great cost.