The Security Paradox: Visible Security Measures Decrease Social Cohesion

From the “unintended consequences” files, apparently the presence of surveillance cameras in urban environments does not reassure citizens, but rather increases people’s anxiety and apprehension of crime:

People are no more fearful of crossing a street with a young male skinhead in it than they are a street with a smartly dressed woman present, unless, that is, a CCTV camera is overhead. The new finding appears to undermine one of the key justifications for Britain’s network of 4.2 million surveillance cameras: that they provide reassurance to the public. It seems that the sight of a CCTV camera can have the opposite effect, cueing the perception of a threat.

The CCTV camera by itself did not cause apprehension, nor did a skinhead on his own. But shown images of both the skinhead and the CCTV, people’s stereotypes of skinheads became primed, and they displayed an increased fear of crime that does not occur when merely witnessing a skinhead without any other external cues to suggest a threat.

The CCTV/apprehension effect isn’t just limited to the UK. A similar phenomenon has been documented in the U.S.:

Where pre-existing anti-social stereotypes may be primed, or no pre-existing sense of threat and immediate need of security are evident, the presence of formal deterrence measures like CCTV, when noticed, may in fact come to represent a proxy symbol of the threat that others pose. Interestingly, Schweitzer et al. (1999) also found that the density of ‘neighbourhood watch’ [sic] signs increased FOC (fear of crime) within American urban locations, so this process may not be specific to CCTV, but part of a general response to environmental features that can indicate the ‘trustworthiness’ of others when making FOC-related appraisals.

I’d imagine a similar effect is caused by the presence of police officers. The idea of the “neighborhood cop,” a familiar police presence who has worked closely with a community, might provide reassurance to a small neighborhood area, but most cops on the streets are anonymous faces, serving more to remind people of the disembodied, lurking threats of urban life rather than inspiring confidence and feelings of safety.

There is no theoretical reason why such things as covers to protect other people seeing the entry of pin numbers for card payments, remote entry systems to flats, swipe card keys, barbed fencing, toughened barriers in shops, and even the armed officer within an airport, could not all play the same role. In essence, in respect of FOC for a given location and trust in the ‘other’, noticeable situational deterrence measures may be a double-edged sword.

The physical and practical measures used to increase a city’s security and its citizen’s welfare might also cause a corresponding decline in social cohesion and trust. That, in turn, could increase the need for security measures in the first place. Individual criminal acts do cause a net welfare loss to society, but an even bigger loss may be caused by the fear and apprehension crime engenders. If CCTV’s or Neighborhood Watch signs increase societal fear of crime beyond the “optimum level” — that is, cause a level of fear greater than what is needed to encourage people to take sensible precautions — then they should be replaced with less visible security measures.

-Susan