Security Resources

Mandated Video Surveillance? Let’s Hope Not…

A recent article in Security Systems News summarized the efforts of Pine Bluff, Arkansas to create an ordinance requiring surveillance cameras at convenience stores and restaurants.

Despite support in the wake of a tragic event – the shooting death of a store clerk during an attempted robbery – this effort is destined to fail. As an integrator for most of my career, I should laud the initiative… after all, nothing sells a system (and service agreement) faster than a government mandate. The reality, however, is that this requirement would do little to improve the safety of store employees – the sponsoring Alderman’s stated goal – while creating a significant burden for those charged with its execution and enforcement.

Without delving into the challenges around ensuring system functionality (i.e. auditing and health monitoring), one needs only to consider the most basic problem of defining what equipment should be required. Cameras at the points of entry? What about each point-of-sale terminal? The safe? What about non-public areas like receiving docks and the manager’s office? What resolution and camera features should be specified? If the cameras are not capable of producing an image that would allow identification of a suspect, but are otherwise functional, is the business in compliance? If the picture is washed out at certain times of day due to strong back-lighting, is the business in compliance? How much video storage will be required? How long is too long to complete a repair? The list goes on and on…

Clearly, there is a problem here. Make the requirements vague and you create a false sense of security while unintentionally defining a “minimum standard” that will not deliver results. The other extreme is worse: Specifically defining an acceptable system is a complex task, and may result in unintended consequences such as increased litigation, conflicts with industry standards, and high compliance/administration costs. Settling somewhere in the middle would likely be so subjective as to be useless.

I give credit to the Pine Bluff Police Department and George Stepps, the Alderman, for wanting to deter crime in a more proactive way, and I agree that cameras can help, but ordinances like this are the wrong strategy. Just look at the debate surrounding the NFPA 730/731 standards. Even working groups within the security industry don’t agree on system design best practices. How much time and money would be spent building a city program that would exist under constant scrutiny and revision?

The best way to get video systems installed – long term – is to promote their use, publish guides and statistics, and get buy-in from the business owners. Special tax incentives and licensing discounts are two ways that government involvement could promote this technology from a distance.

The ROI and deterrent value of video surveillance has always been difficult to quantify – especially for businesses without Loss Prevention departments – but when the benefits are understood, the decision is easy. Business owners need to be educated about these systems, including the many advanced features available today. I expect that our legal system will continue to help the cause, by shielding those who take appropriate preventative measures, and punishing those who ignore known risks.

This is a call to action for integrators and business owners alike. When something as fundamental as basic video surveillance has to be mandated, we’re not doing our jobs.


12-07-2012:  Security Director News article with additional commentary

12-19-2012:  The City Council passed a revised version of the ordinance. See this post for more…

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