Separate Security Cameras and State

In his column today, The Wall Street Journal‘s Gordon Crovitz notes the significant help that video footage played in helping police identify the Boston Marathon bombers. However, he seems to miss what the Boston police’s success actually implies — that government-run security cameras are unnecessary for protecting public safety.

Boston is one of the less-wired large cities when it comes to surveillance cameras, so authorities relied largely on footage from private parties, such as the Lord & Taylor department store near the scene. The most recent estimate, from 2010, is that Boston and surrounding towns have some 150 police surveillance cameras, plus 400 in the subway. This compares with more than 3,000 government and networked private cameras in New York City’s financial district alone, and some 400,000 cameras in London.

While Crovitz doesn’t explicitly say so, the seeming implication that  Boston being “one of the less-wired large cities” may be a shortcoming is troubling and misses the real lesson of the search for the bombers — the value of the public’s engagement in helping to protect their own city. The Washington Examiner‘s Tim Carney, on the other hand, gets it right.

So it turns out we already have plenty of cameras on the street. They’re not government cameras, but rather cameras owned and operated by private individuals and businesses. In a bout of public spiritedness, these pedestrians and businesses willingly shared their videos with law enforcement. Even if the crime had not been so notorious, the police could expect public cooperation — what merchant wouldn’t share his surveillance tapes to aid in a murder investigation?

Indeed, until private surveillance and recording of events prove inadequate — and there is no reason to believe that they will — the burden of proof should remain on government on the need to expand its surveillance capabilities.

UPDATE: In a related topic, David Henderson at Econlog explains the value of decentralized, citizen-driven information in ensuring public safety (h/t Iain Murray).