Unity is rare on our famously fractious city council, but last week it voted unanimously to install security cameras at the underpass at Rideau and Sussex in an effort to fight crime in the area. If all goes according to plan, council would like to have more city streets under 24/7 surveillance.

And why not? The city already has about 500 cameras monitoring municipal buildings and facilities like parks and pools. Taxis are also wired for video, and private security cameras are everywhere.

For those who balk at having their mere presence on certain streets recorded as potential evidence, provincial privacy regulations dictate some limits: Faces are blurred and can only be unblurred to identify the perpetrator of a crime, and the images can only be stored for a limited time.

But do cameras fight crime? Ottawa police are calling attention to a recent spike in bank robberies. Banks, of course, are already bristling with cameras.

And as for the supposed deterrent effect of cameras on crime, numerous studies show there isn’t much.
In San Francisco, a report on its crime camera program this year found they had reduced non-violent thefts within 100 feet of the camera, but caused no overall reduction (thieves simply moved down the street). Car theft and violent crime were unaffected. So criminals were mildly inconvenienced while everyone else was treated as a suspect. San Francisco’s response? Order more cameras.

Our crime rate is low and falling, but public fear of crime stubbornly resists statistics. This sells a lot of cameras, and installing them makes governments look busy. You could call it government by trick photography.

Ottawa’s enthusiasm for surveillance also appears to be something of a one-way street. In January, a Canadian Newspaper Association audit of federal, provincial and municipal compliance with freedom of information laws awarded our secretive city hall a D+.

Last year, the city fought to conceal how much it paid consultant Gordon Hunter, Mayor Larry O’Brien’s former campaign manager. Among the excuses given for withholding the information was the potential cost involved in spin and damage control once the information became public. That’s right: The city was trying to save taxpayers money by keeping them in the dark about how much those taxpayers had paid Hunter ($80,454 over four months).

Perhaps a little more expense and effort could be devoted to helping Ottawa’s citizens keep an eye on their government, and a little less to watching the citizens themselves.