Closed Circuit Television Surveillance of Public Space in Vancouver

A Brief Overview of Evidence from the UK & Arguments About its Use in the Downtown Eastside

The Vancouver Police Department is proposing a Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) system to combat crime in the Downtown Eastside. While the goal is laudable, we believe the police have left too many unanswered questions about CCTV. Without more research and public debate, neither the City of Vancouver nor the Police Department should give this proposal any further consideration. CCTV has implications for the use and governance of public space that reach far beyond the Downtown Eastside. And while the police promise only good results for the neighbourhood itself, it is evident that, in the medium-term, CCTV will have deleterious consequences for the many residents of the neighbourhod with low incomes. In light of this, the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) has started looking at research and analysis of CCTV systems. This overview is a preliminary report of what we have found. It is offered as the first step in a community-initiated critical discussion about CCTV and its potential effects on the Downtown Eastside and the entire city.


Such dubious methodology has been described by British criminologists as ‘wholly unreliable’ and ‘post hoc shoestring efforts by the untrained and self-interested practioner.’ Much evidence has been based on aggregate data derived from simple analyses of crime statistics in areas of CCTV coverage before and after camera installation. Data frequently covers only very short time-frames. Such dubious methodology has been described by British criminologists as ‘wholly unreliable’ and ‘post hoc shoestring efforts by the untrained and self-interested practitioner’.1

Study indicates violence may just shift off-camera

Constable Grant Fredericks and your readers might be interested in a recently published study of the impact of video surveillance on street violence in three Welsh towns (Video cameras make streets safer, Forum, June 15).

The study, by the University of Wales College of Medicine, was reported in the Journal of Accident and Emergency Medicine. It examined police reports of violent crimes and hospital emergency encounters for violent crimes for two years before and two years after the installation of 24-hour, closed-circuit TV surveillance.

As is true for the Downtown Eastside, the expectation was that surveillance would act as a deterrent and also enhance the perception of safety in the public mind.

Emergency room visits "capture" far more violent episodes than police reports. The hospitals had reports of 22,442 assaults versus 3,228 violent offences reported by the police. While police statistics showed a nine-per-cent drop in reported violent offences in the years following surveillance, the hospitals reported only a one-per-cent drop.

The researchers concluded: "Over-all, accident and emergency department data do not suggest that closed-circuit television installation reduced town and city centre violence." They speculate that one explanation may be that violence has shifted out of sight of the cameras.

We should be somewhat skeptical, therefore, of the claims that video surveillance has reduced crime in Britain. And we should not be too suprised if technology fails to fix the complex social problems in our own neighbourhoods.

Provincial Health Officer

Source:Vancouver Sun, July 5, 1999



The Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) report, CCTV A Community Policing Option for the Downtown Eastside, proposes a CCTV system for use in the Downtown Eastside. The report suggests a straightforward, unilinear connection between CCTV and crime reduction. Further, it suggests that displacement of crime is not a factor. However, the link between CCTV, crime reduction, and crime displacement is more complex than the report infers. Most evidence on the effectiveness of CCTV as a crime-fighting technology is from the UK. The vast bulk of this evidence has been gathered by the agencies which either fund these highly expensive systems (in the UK, this has been through the Home Office) or have purchased them (local authorities). There is thus a notable degree of self-interest in proving that they work. Most of the VPD testimony (10 of 28 references) regarding crime reduction effects is from the security industry, as well as British politicians. Two obvious sectors with vested interests in the proliferation of CCTV.

Some problems with most CCTV statistics and research

The ‘before’ and ‘after’ time periods [when crime stats are collected] are often too short and not matched for time of year. The data only relates to crimes reported to and recorded by the police which may not accurately reflect actual changes in crime. The possibility that CCTV has displaced crime to surrounding areas not in view of the cameras is rarely mentioned or studied, and nor are control areas identified to assess comparable changes in crime in places without cameras.

Nick Fyfe and Jon Bannister, 1996, City Watching: closed circuit television surveillance in public spaces. University of Glasgow. Area 28, 1, 37-46.

Airdrie, Scottland:

After the installation of CCTV in the town centre reported assaults fell from 171 to 79, but crime overall in the whole district rose 20 per cent. Manchester and Leeds: [British cities that decided against CCTV] Instead of CCTV, both cities are developing comprehensive ‘24-hour city’ strategies which mix better street design and lighting with mixed use planning, licensing relations, improved public transport and proactive cultural ‘animation’ policies.

Graham, Brooks and Heery, 1996, Towns on the Television: Closed Circuit TV in British Towns and Cities. University of Newcastle, Local Government Studies, Vol.22, No.3, pp.1-77.

Significantly, however, even Home Office research has not been able to ignore the mixed bag of CCTV effects, not all of them desirable.2 The direct link between CCTV and reductions in criminal activities starts to come apart when data are subjected to rigourous evaluation by independent observers. In a study of CCTV in Airdrie, which had Scotland’s first such program, researchers discovered that a decline in crime rates attributed to surveillance included variations among different categories of crime.

While so-called crimes of dishonesty, including theft and robbery declined, some of this decline was due to displacement. Public order crimes, on the other hand, skyrocketed.3

Another independent study, reported in the Electronic Telegraph (a source for the VPD report), noted quite the reverse effect in the south London Borough of Sutton. In this instance theft and muggings actually increased in the area under CCTV coverage, while the overall decrease in crime was greater outside the area of coverage than within!4 The displacement effect of CCTV should be of serious concern for there is evidence not only that it militates against crime reduction effects of cameras, but also that it fuels demand for the extension of video surveillance.

In Doncaster, South Yorkshire, displacement of crime from the town centre toward peripheral areas meant that the overall reduction in the crime rate was rather minimal, offsetting the decline in the area under CCTV coverage.5

In Newcastle-on-Tyne, heralded as a major success-story for CCTV, displacement has apparently helped produce public pressure for more video cameras to cover increasingly wider areas.6

The rapid proliferation of CCTV schemes in the UK seems to have been politically-driven. Both the Conservative Party, which sought to recapture its image as the party of law and order, and Labour, which has successfully lifted this mantle, have used endorsements and funding of CCTV to prove their "get tough" approaches to crime. Under the Tories, 78% of the Home Office crime prevention budget was expended on CCTV funding.7 Despite the purported effectiveness of CCTV at least two major British cities, Manchester and Leeds, have rejected it.

In the USA, Oakland, California, police also rejected CCTV. The Oakland Police Chief told that city’s politicians: "... there is no conclusive way to establish that the presence of video surveillance cameras resulted in the prevention or reduction of crime."8


In each of these cases, according to reports, police have opted for programs that require more intensive community involvement. In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the VPD has also undertaken innovative policing measures that have responded to long-time community concerns. For example, by working together with health and licensing authorities, the police have exerted pressure on bar operators and have totally eliminated bar-related knife incidents over the past 18 months. The police are also working in conjunction with other authorities to impose pressure on the owners of some of the worst single room occupancy (SRO) hotels.

This effort has produced some tangible improvements in conditions at a number of these locations. Both empirical evidence and theoretical considerations raise questions about the deployment of CCTV as an exclusionary device. This has potentially serious ramifications with regard to the Downtown Eastside.

Any discussion of CCTV that uses evidence from the UK must take note of the three primary types of sites of British surveillance schemes.

First, there are the town centres, where CCTV was viewed as a means of business regeneration. Here, surveillance provides the basis for a ‘feel-good factor’ that is supposed to promote the revival of city centre shopping by making consumers feel more secure. In practice, it appears that this has involved CCTV-facilitated crack-downs on so-called public order and nuisance offences as well as targeting of specific age or ethnic groups by surveillance monitors.9

Second, middle and upper class residential areas in the UK are also adopting video surveillance systems. In each case, CCTV would seem to operate as a force of exclusion on moral, as well as legal grounds, leading to the promotion of conformity in behaviour and appearance.

Third, working class housing estates have become key sites for surveillance, including the deployment of pinhole or keyhole cameras, which are designed to be secret or hidden to the casual observer. There is debate about whether the effect (intended or otherwise) of CCTV in such cases is to disperse crime or contain it.10


1 Cited in Nick Fyfe and Jon Bannister, 1996, City Watching: closed circuit television surveillance in public spaces. Area 28, 1, 37-46.
2 Cf. David Millward, 1996, ‘TV cameras have limited effect on town centre crime’. Electronic Telegraph, Home News, 2 January
3 Jason Ditton and Emma Short, 1998, Evaluating Scotland’s first town centre CCTV scheme. In Clive Norris, Jade Moran and Gary Armstrong, Siurveillance, Closed Circuit Television and Social Control. Ashgate: Aldershot.
4 Millward, 1996.
5 David Skinns, 1998, Crime reduction, diffusion and displacement: evaluating the effectiveness of CCTV. In Norris, Moran and Armstrong.
6 Electronic Telegraph, 1996, ‘Newcastle: Public want more cameras’. Home News, 2 January
7 Stephen J. Fay, 1998, Tough on Crime, Tough on Civil Liberties: Some Negative Aspects of Britain’s Wholesale Adoption of CCTV Surveillance During the 1990s. Internation Review of Law, Computers and Technology, 12, 2, pp. 315-347.
8 On Manchester and Leeds, see Stephen Graham, John Brooks and Dan Heery, 1996, Towns on Television: Closed Circuit Television in British Towns and Cities. Local Government Studies, 22, 3, pp. 1-27; on Oakland, see American Civil Liberties Union, 1997, ‘Oakland City Kills Video Surveillance Project; ACLU Cites Important Lessons for Other Cities’. Freedom Network News
9 John Bannister, Nicholas Fyfe and Ade Kearns, 1998, Closed circuit television and the city. In Norris, Moran and Armstrong; Graham, Brooks and Heery, 1996; Fay, 1998.
10 Fay, 1998; Graham, Brooks and Heery, 1996.




The question of whether CCTV creates a field of exclusion within the range of its cameras, either by intent or as an unintended consequence, should in itself provide sufficient reason to more closely examine its use in the Downtown Eastside. It is important to understand that, despite the poverty of the majority of residents and the poor housing conditions which continue to prevail here, the Downtown Eastside is not the classic abandoned inner city slum. Rather, it is a hotly contested area that under the right economic conditions is ripe for property development; all at the expense of the current resident population. One person’s ‘revitalization’ or ‘improvement’ means the eviction and displacement of another.

The community is being squeezed by property development and tourist business on all sides. The main reason for empty buildings and vacant store fronts is real estate speculation rather than abandonment. The key form of housing stock in the neighbourhood, SRO hotels, is being increasingly eroded via conversion to tourist accommodation. This SRO stock is Vancouver’s last remaining defense against the scale of homelessness that we see in Toronto.

"... there is no conclusive way to establish that the presence of video surveillance cameras resulted in the prevention or reduction of crime."

Police Chief, Oakland, California

CCTV or Community Policing:

The VPD has demonstrated that it can respond effectively to problems, which the community has identified, and that it can do so by working with the community (see point #4).

Meanwhile, the Downtown Eastside is regularly demonized in local and national media as ‘skid road’ and ‘the worst place ... in the entire country’. The use of CCTV in this situation potentially brings the worst of all possible worlds to the Downtown Eastside. It provides no new housing or employment opportunities to the people who live in the neighbourhood. It offers no means of improving living conditions inside SRO hotels. Indeed, some people have suggested that it might push illegal activities off the streets and into people’s living spaces. Rather than targeting business-operators or landlords who take advantage of poverty and addictions, it focuses on the behaviour of those individuals who do not fit the expectations or mores of the camera monitors. In so doing, it bolsters those elements in the city who promote gentrification and displacement as the solutions to social problems in the Downtown Eastside by increasing pressure to expel individuals whose behaviour does not fit the model of the residential property-owner, the shopper or tourist.

The use of private security in Gastown and Chinatown is indicative of this trend. Given the large-scale evictions of residents from Granville Street SRO hotels, to make way for tourists, it is hard to take seriously the assertions that CCTV offers only benign consequences.

The current round of Granville Street evictions are the outcome of a process that started some 14 years ago, when police and planning officials inaugurated a ‘clean-up’ campaign which initially resulted in the shift of Granville’s long-time heroin trade to Hastings St. The migration of the soft-drug trade from the Granville mall to Pigeon Park followed shortly thereafter. The rest is history.

CCTV promises to accelerate this process in the Downtown Eastside. Like any new technology, it will be utilized most successfully by those with the most social power. An image of crime-fighting technology is designed to appeal to a broad audience yet the forms of conduct that it targets will inevitably be defined by, groups with money and property. Taken in context with the pervasive conflict over space in the Downtown Eastside, video surveillance offers a weapon promoting displacement (intentionally or not) of poor people.

The VPD has shown that it can respond effectively to problems, which the community has identified, and that it can do so by working with the community (see section 4, above). CCTV offers the police a long-term means of monitoring behaviour with minimal presence. Unfortunately, this is not what the Downtown Eastside or Vancouver presently need.

Vancouver Police Department estimated cost for a CCTV system in the Downtown Eastside
Camera System Installation Costs $72,000.00
Video Transmission System $148,990.25
Master Control - 312 Main Street $33,150.00
E-COMM Control (E. Hastings St. and Hwy #1) $14,450.00
Fiber optic Transmission from 312 Main St. to E-COMM undisclosed
Yearly Operating Budget undisclosed

For more information: Please Contact CCAP @ (604) 689-0397
401 Main St. Second Floor Vancouver, BC, V6A 2T7

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