It is just a matter of weeks since the rape and murder of ABC staffer Jill Meagher, the truly saddening case of a young woman going out for drinks with colleagues, never to return home to husband of 3 years, Tom Meagher again. There’s a man before the courts facing charges over the assault and death, a swift end to the most difficult of investigations for police. It was CCTV footage that helped identify the perpetrator, not in the Brunswick street, but from a local shopfront. Inevitably, such a high-profile case has provoked some discussion, mostly sober, of the appropriateness or otherwise of the increased presence of these devices in our community.
Today Opposition Leader Tony Abbott pledged to spend $50 million over 4 years, via grants to local council areas, to be used for the purchase and installation of CCTV cameras in cities across the country. This reinstates a program of the former Howard Government, not the first planned resurrection of policy from the Howard years.
Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu though, as leader of the state where Jill Meagher disappeared, beat his federal colleague off the mark, in swift response to the heinous crime. Premier Baillieu has pledged $3 million for local councils, in an identical scheme to that of the federal Opposition Leader, again for local councils to procure more security cameras for the streets of Victoria.
The whole matter raises the age-old question: at what price do we diminish liberty?
To some extent that is a false question. Security cameras do not stop people from going about legal activities in a public place. Indeed, the presence of security cameras does not even stop people doing things that are illegal.
When looking at the privacy side of the equation, things get a little more blurred. There are some surveillance cameras in very strange places, locations which tread a very fine line and can stray into the territory of absurd over-utilisation. That in itself should be the biggest worry, rather than the simple existence of prying eyes in our streets and other public locations.
In the debate over whether or not to make use of, or increase the abundance of security cameras, there’s another interesting element. Avid supporters of increasing the saturation of CCTV cameras will say that they are a very good crime prevention tool. They will try to argue that the simple presence of these facilities cuts down crime before it happens there is simply little or no evidence of this.
What they are, as the Meagher case has proved, is a vital tool, when not overused and abused, for aiding law enforcement. They can capture illegal practices and aid in the identification of offenders. Sometimes this will lead to the quick apprehension of offenders, when manned by alert staff, usually of councils. Other times, they can lead to the arrest of alleged criminals days, weeks, months or years later.
Security footage also helps build a picture of events that may have preceded a crime. Referring back to the death of Jill Meagher, this is exactly what happened. The footage formed part of the story of the last hours in the life of the Melbourne resident. That narrative is crucial for investigators in filling in the blanks in cases that are tough to solve if a sequence of events is not established quickly.
Surveillance cameras and facilities do not make communities safer as you would be made to believe. In this sense, the use of them, the simple talk of beefing up capabilities is used to appeal to an emotion. Rhetoric about CCTV footage is successfully applied, appealing to the human need to feel safe and secure in our daily lives. Human beings are susceptible to being very passive and accepting when fears we have are harnessed by politicians.
The CCTV issue is a difficult one and there are no easy answers. There seems to be a right and a wrong way for governments to go about implementing further plans for the over-watch of the streets and public facilities of our towns and cities.
The highly publicised murder of Jill Meagher will serve as a catalyst for more surveillance cameras around our country and that’s not automatically a bad thing. At the same time, our politicians have a responsibility to not make false promises which appeal to easily manipulated emotions.