Will more CCTV cameras actually help curb Toronto's gun violence problem?

Aug 27 2019, 8:13 am

The Ontario government announced it will allocate $3 million towards the implementation of new Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras in Toronto, increasing the count from 34 cameras to 74.

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The commitment will span across three years, and the city will see $2 million granted in 2019 and $500,000 each year thereafter. The first $2 million will go towards infrastructure, while the remaining funds will be used for operational costs. This announcement follows the news around Project Community Space, an 11-week initiative that will see more police officers patrolling in Toronto neighbourhoods. The new measures and funding comes in response to the surge in gun violence in the city and the need to keep the streets safe for all Torontonians.

But is adding more cameras enough to stop the rise of gun violence in Toronto?

Toronto Police

Police data (shared in the above chart) states that 285 shootings have taken place so far in 2019 with 430 victims (as of Sunday, August 25, 2019) accounted for. In August alone, there have been 75 reported victims related to shootings. From 2018 to 2019 (so far), police data indicated that 41% of shootings resulted in no injuries.

“The City of Toronto has been trying to find funding to add 40 additional CCTV cameras to their networks since at least July 2018, where the cameras were part of a proposal that also included potentially purchasing the controversial ‘ShotSpotter’ technology, a move which was ultimately rejected,” says Brenda McPhail, director of privacy, technology and surveillance projects at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), an independent, nongovernmental organization that’s promoted civil rights for Canadians for over 50 years.

The ‘ShotSpotter’ technology is used by police in numerous cities in the US. Microphones can locate and detect gunfire and police are then notified immediately.

“CCTV cameras may be useful after the fact, but there is very little data that suggests they can thwart or deter crimes. There’s some research that suggests cameras might work for a little while in crime hot-spots, but less evidence for long term deterrence, and some evidence that it might displace crime rather than prevent it,” says McPhail. “So, increasing cameras is good security theatre because people believe in the power of cameras, but it’s not empirically clear that cameras genuinely improve safety.”

McPhail says video surveillance should be of concern and questions should be posed to politicians during the election run.

“When it comes to privacy and elections, we all need to ask why political parties who collect and use our personal information to benefit their candidates, are not subject to privacy laws,” says McPhail.

“We need public conversations and regulation relating to the use of these kind of analytics (like analyzing for gait recognition or facial recognition) beginning with a discussion about whether or not risks to privacy, free speech, and free association outweigh any potential benefits,” she stresses. “And that discussion needs to happen before such technologies are used, not after.”

McPhail also says all surveillance data that is collected should be “encrypted at source and only viewed when necessary,” but, more importantly we need to be looking at the root causes of violence.

“That’s where the mitigation efforts need to be focused—surveillance does absolutely nothing to address the root causes of the problem,” argues McPhail. And that’s not fully addressed by the city’s leaders.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford believes CCTV cameras are a good deterrent and one of the many tools to help solve crimes.

And Toronto Mayor John Tory said the funding for CCTV cameras is a good move, but still a very modest investment.

Tory also said that “99.9% are law abiding citizens, but there is a small subset which are more violent”, and these situations require a combination of help including neighbourhood officers, those on the front line, and a gang task force handling intelligence.

McPhail echoes this, expressing the need for more on-the-ground work with communities and experts to identify and address the issues that cause people to commit crimes and turn to violence.

“There simply aren’t technological fixes for all, or maybe any, of our fundamental societal problems,” McPhail says.

In response to Friday’s news, MPP Faisal Hassan, the NDP’s youth engagement critic and MPP Kevin Yarde, the community safety and correctional services critic for the NDP, released the following statement:

“We were disappointed that Doug Ford’s announcement on gun violence again included only tools that could help after a shooting. Mr. Ford has cancelled the Focus on Youth after school program, scrapped student jobs for hundreds of kids, ended the Speak Up program, cancelled the Sistema program for at-risk youth and is taking thousands of teachers out of the classroom, giving each young person less guidance and attention. He has taken millions of dollars away from the efforts to put at-risk young people on a better path. The real work of stopping gun and gang violence starts before kids join gangs, not after heart-breaking and devastating shootings tear families apart and take lives.”

The aftermath of gun violence

Bonnie Levine, the executive director for Victim Services Toronto, works closely with the Toronto Police Services helping victims affected by gun violence, among other traumas. Levine notes that the organization deals with around 20,000 people yearly and this number surged to 24,000 people last year following attacks such as the Toronto Danforth shooting, which killed two people and left 13 people wounded in Toronto’s Greektown community.

Breaking down victim data can be tricky, says Levine, and their stats are different than the police stats.

“People ask ‘well you have a lot shootings but then the following year you have less shootings and more victims—how does that work’?” Levine recounts to Daily Hive. “And we say, ‘people are taking time to realize’. So, our stats don’t exactly mirror the Toronto Police stats. In the case of the Danforth shooting, for example, many focus on the physical healing first then the emotional comes later.”

“Trauma is something that happens to you and you think about it over and over again. In fact, if you don’t work through it, it will work through you,” she says. “Sometimes you’re in a state of shock and it takes time to recognize ‘this changed my life and I need help getting through it’.”

What’s next?

As for the nature of surveillance and what should be of concern, McPhail recommends asking if the intrusive nature of the surveillance is necessary and proportionate.

McPhail also says to question whether there are “no less intrusive ways to accomplish the same goal” as well the overall benefits of using the cameras compared to the invasive nature of the surveillance.

“We are often told what a great tool cameras are, but the actual evidence of their effectiveness is hard to come by, and we should ask to see such evidence, provided in a way that we are able to assess its accuracy,” argues McPhail.

McPhail says privacy laws are very clear about the need to notify people when they are under overt video surveillance, too, and this includes its purpose and who to contact with concerns. However, although indicators such as signs are necessary, McPhail says they are often insufficient to really make people aware of being monitored since it is “difficult to make sure that signs are visible to everyone and installed in the right places to inform people before, not after, they’ve entered a surveillance zone.”

Learning where these cameras are mounted, how often they are being monitored, and what data is getting collected (and for what purpose) are further details to find out.

Then we can understand if Big Brother is really always watching. At the very least, we should expect to see more of these maps popping up.