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.
Dave Williams and Jobuda Ahmed presented 120 participants - shoppers in Hatfield - with pictures of a fictional town centre street scene. When the scene contained both a skinhead and a CCTV camera, the participants, aged between 18 to 70 years, reported raised concern about walking in the scene, compared with when the same scene was either empty, contained a woman with or without a CCTV camera, or a skinhead without a camera. In other words, it was specifically the combination of a skinhead and CCTV that provoked fear - neither had any effect on their own.
The presence of a CCTV camera seemed to cue participants' prejudices about skinheads, thus inducing fear. This supposition was supported when participants were asked to write a paragraph on a "day in the life of" either the male skinhead or the smartly dressed woman. When a CCTV camera was present in the scene, but not otherwise, participants wrote an account of the skinhead's day that betrayed their prejudices, for example one account stated that he had "outstayed his welcome in the cafe".
"Defending the modern urban landscape from a sense of undulating moral crisis and corresponding crime with visible technological crime deterrence measures may not always reduce fear of crime," the researchers said. "[CCTV] is partly designed to reduce fear of crime ... this study demonstrates that in certain contexts it can have the opposite effect."
CCTV cameras may not be the only form of crime-fighting paraphernalia that can backfire by cueing a sense of threat. In a North American study conducted in the late 90's John Schweitzer and colleagues found that a plethora of "Neighbourhood Watch" signs increased people's fear of crime.
Williams, D., & Ahmed, J. (2009). The relationship between antisocial stereotypes and public CCTV systems: exploring fear of crime in the modern surveillance society. Psychology, Crime & Law, 15 (8), 743-758 DOI: 10.1080/10683160802612882