The Rise of CCTV in Public and Law Enforcement

Image of thin blue line with police officer turning on body camera superimposed over. Caption reads, Body cams for police officers is becoming a trend which many in the public seem to see as a panacea. They are not. Body cameras are simply another tool for police to use. As with any tool, it is just as effective as the person wielding it.

Anyone who has watched recent police dramas centered in Europe or the UK has seen how police are quick to ‘check the CCTV footage.’ Is this because the European and United Kingdom are now blanketed with closed-circuit television cameras? Or could it be that making such references in a police drama is sexy given the relative newness of CCTV use? Alternately, could the media outlets seeking to make CCTV use more publically acceptable as some privacy advocates assert? More to the point, can a balance be found between privacy and the use of closed-circuit television in public spaces by law enforcement?

What is CCTV and How Does it Work?

CCTV simply means closed-circuit television. By closed-circuit, the cameras simply provide television images to those connected directly to the system; in other words, there is no public access. The only way the system can effectively and efficiently serve law enforcement purposes is if it has a method of recording what is captured on screen. Even then there are limits to its usefulness as a tool by police forces to identify and apprehend suspects to a crime.

CCTV is not exactly new. Closed-circuit television technology was developed and used first in 1942 Nazi-Germany. No, not to spy on the public, but to provide the German leadership with a way to view the launches of their latest military technology, the V-2 rocket.

Not long thereafter, the system was available commercially in the United States. However, because the technology to record what was captured lagged behind for another two decades, little use was made of CCTV outside commercial security. To be of any good use, the system had to have someone constantly monitoring the screens.

Early recording devices used with closed-circuit television employed large magnetic spools which required frequent changing. The devices were simply not practical for anyone other than large organizations.

By the 1970s, the video cassette recorder or VCR was developed. This made the use of closed-circuit TV practical and its use began to grow. Businesses across American and throughout the world began to install closed-circuit cameras with VCRs in their businesses. Law enforcement would commonly use the VCR tape in their efforts to capture robbery or murder suspects. CCTV and the VCR made it possible for police detectives to better identify and capture criminals in a way never before able.

Today, the VCR has been replaced by digital recording and storage devices, but the CCTV system/concept remains essentially unchanged (though today, TVs are also digital rather than analog).

How Widespread is the Use of Closed-Circuit TV?

Once the ability to record was introduced, CCTV began to experience a surge in popularity, particularly among business owners interested in providing added security to their companies. Pawn shops, banks, convenience stores, and similar businesses added closed-circuit TVs behind their counters and over cash drawers. Eventually, the units were added to the exterior of many businesses and today, every ATM has one pointed at the user.

It is estimated that as of the end of 2016, more than 350 million CCTV systems are in place worldwide and the number continues to grow daily. Many homeowners now have closed-circuit television cameras in use both outside and inside. One common use is to add these to the nursery in order to keep track of babysitters and many Day Care Centers provide access by patrons to their systems so that parents can check up on their children throughout the day.

What Are the Different Types of CCTV Cameras?

One of the key limits of closed-circuit television today lay in the designs. Not every camera can capture every angle needed when a crime or unacceptable situation has occurred. This is readily seen in the body cam and dash cam footage made public when there is a situation involving law enforcement.

Often, the CCTV footage provided by these specialty cameras fails to provide an entirely accurate account of the situation as it unfolds. Investigators then must use additional means such as cell phone footage captured by onlookers if available and eyewitness statements. The public, not understanding the limitations of such cameras at times creates additional problems for law enforcement by drawing conclusions based solely on the footage captured.

To better understand this issue, consider the eight types of closed-circuit cameras in general use today.

  • Bullet
  • C-Mount/CS-Mount
  • Day/Night
  • Dome
  • High-definition (HD)
  • Infrared
  • Network/IP
  • Wireless

What is a Bullet CCTV Camera?

The Bullet CCTV camera is one of the most common for outdoor use. So-named because of its cylindrical shape, the bullet camera is usually water and weatherproof and can be easily mounted to a wall or other structure. It may be mounted stationary or in conjunction with a motor for moving the view.

Most bullet cameras today come in a variety of video definitions including 720P. 1080P, or even 3MP. One of the key features of the bullet camera is the price. These are usually the most cost-effective units to be had so when combined with its versatility, the bullet cam is often the security camera of choice for many businesses and homeowners.

What is a C-Mount/CS-Mount CCTV Camera?

C-Mount cameras are the original camera/lens types used in closed-circuit televisions systems. The cameras are more boxy than most other such cameras and are mainly used indoors — though some come with adaptations allowing outdoor use. The key distinguishing feature of the C-Mount and the newer CS-Mount cameras is that the lenses are interchangeable, that is, different lenses can be purchased for use on the same camera depending on needs. These lenses can allow for

  • situations where lighting is poor or excellent
  • where greater zoom capability is needed
  • wider or more narrow viewing field is required
  • a near or wider focus is required

What is a Day/Night CCTV Camera?

As the name implies, the Day/Night CCTV camera has the ability to record during the day or at night without altering lenses or making any other changes with the setting or rising of the sun. Understandably, this is often the camera of choice for many homeowners who want added security around their home when lighting may not be present. The cameras are generally weather and water proof and usually feature infrared capabilities.

What is a Dome CCTV Camera?

Most people have seen a dome CCTV camera. Many of these are in use in restaurants and other businesses for a couple of reasons. The reasonably low cost makes them attractive, but also, most have the ability to capture a wide view. The dome camera is named for its small, inverted dome shape and is flush-mounted to ceilings or walls in such a way that they are less conspicuous than traditional cameras.

What is a High-Definition (HD) CCTV Camera?

As the name implies, HD cameras provide high definition images. Although most other cameras are often offered today in higher definitions, a true HD CCTV camera provides a much cleaner, sharper image than most which claim to be high-def. These cameras are especially useful in high-crime areas, places where the lighting is poor, and locations where the viewing range may be extensive.

What is an Infrared CCTV Camera?

Infrared closed-circuit cameras provide images in dark settings. No matter the level of lighting, if the camera is infrared, an image will be provided. Infrared operates by using the natural heat projected from surfaces and bodies to generate an image. The image provided will generally lack the detail needed for an accurate identification however. Still, infrared cameras can be useful tools in the security arsenal of any business or individual. This is especially so when used in conjunction with other cameras placed strategically where lighting is better. For instance, someone walking and wearing a backpack thinks nothing of the high-definition camera at the bank across the street. Ducking into a dark alley, they meet with someone and conduct a drug deal. In the darkness, they are unaware of the infrared camera at the backdoor of a restaurant. When law enforcement is able to pull the footage from both cameras, they may have enough to both identify the parties to the crime as well as establish exactly what transpired.

What is a Network/IP CCTV Camera?

Network/IP cameras are fairly standard today, but some of the older analog units can still be found. Unlike analog signals, the IP camera relays digital signals to a computer for projection. First developed by Axis Communications in 1996, the first IP cameras only provided still images, delivered at intervals. Ironically, although developed after the Internet, the first IP cameras were not intended to replace analog systems, rather to supplement. The idea was that the system could allow images to be transferred quickly via the Internet. It was not until the Internet and modern PCs developed streaming capabilities that the Network/IP CCTV cameras could take over. Buyer beware: Although most surveillance and security cameras today are digital, analog systems are still sold. Why? Because there may be scenarios wherein a analog recording is preferred.

What is a Wireless CCTV Camera?

Although many cameras are hard-wired into networks, a growing trend is to have wireless cameras. Wireless provides numerous advantages, not the least of which is the need to string wires to every camera. For homeowners, this means that they can place CCTV cameras all around the outside and inside of their home, easily adding more as the need arises. In addition, there will never be a need to replace the wiring and when they decide to upgrade their equipment, doing so will be seamless and simple. The drawbacks are that as with other wireless devices, the wireless CCTV can be hacked easier and are always subject to atmospheric interference, although this latter issue is rapidly going away as wireless technology improves.

What is a DVR and How is it Used with Closed-Circuit Television?

The ability to record is what made closed-circuit television useful for security and surveillance in everyday settings. Just as the VHS recorder made analog CCTV efficient and effective for security use, the DVR has revolutionized security use of the systems.

DVR means digital video recorder and with it, law enforcement can retrieve recordings made by CCTV cameras quickly and easily. Whereas police detectives at one time had to physically retrieve a VHS tape then spend hours running through it, rewinding, and sometimes fixing stuck tapes, with a DVR they need only call the entity making the recording and have them email the file.

Once law enforcement has the file, they can locate and isolate the important elements, recording the location of the event so that later, it can be instantly accessed. The time saved with DVR technology for law enforcement use cannot be understated.

In addition, there is no longer a need to ensure that the VHS tapes are changed between recordings and recordings can be viewed in real time. Too, because these recordings are stored digitally, the ability to record for far longer periods is attainable. In essence, each police cruiser dash cam and every police officer body cam has a DVR built in. In fact, body cams would not be possible were it not for DVR technology.

How Can CCTV Help Law Enforcement and the Criminal Justice System?

Clearly, CCTV provides enormous advantages to law enforcement. Detectives are better able to identify suspects to crimes and when the public has issue with a police officer, supervisors and Internal Affairs Departments are better able to assess the validity of the complaint.

Having video footage of a criminal or civil situation helps the criminal justice system better determine the facts in a case. For instance, the state of Minnesota has started using body cam footage in domestic violence situations. Authorities expect this to be advantageous because a domestic violence victim often later recants statements made in the heat of the moment out of fear of reprisal or some other reason. This way, the victim statements are no longer needed — police investigators can simply submit the body cam footage as evidence.

What are Police Body Cams?

Body cams are the latest technology impacting law enforcement and have proven thus far to be a two-edged sword. Body cams are small CCTV cameras which may be worn on the shirt of a police officer. Although body cams have been in use for police in various cities around the United States for a few years, clearly some on the force have failed to understand how they work.

On July 20, 2017, police in Baltimore, Maryland were found to be planting evidence. Then, less than two weeks later, a police officer in the same city was seen committing the same crime. Prior to this, police body cams have revealed other infractions, though none so egregious.

Regardless of problems faced by some on the force, police in general appear to be adapting well to the technology.

What are Police Dash Cams?

Dash cams have been in operation longer than body cams. Police around the United States and in other parts of the world have grown accustomed to this form of CCTV. Dash cams are cameras mounted to the dash of a squad car, generally directed to the front of the vehicle.

Dash cams in police cruisers have met with largely the same issues not impacting body cams — at times they are an asset and at times they catch police behaving badly. Overall, however, dash cams have been an asset to law enforcement not only for traffic purposes but also in a variety of criminal and personnel-related issues.

Private Camera Systems

Law enforcement has, since the earliest days of closed-circuit TV relied heavily on private camera systems for evidence in crimes. From shopkeepers to large commercial industries, the CCTV footage captured has been provided to police detectives when solving crimes.

A normal part of police-work is to check with local businesses when a crime has been committed to see if their cameras caught anything useful. Of course, private individuals and businesses are neither obligated nor required by law to provide such evidence, but if police detectives believe there is useful information on the recordings, they can appeal to a judge to issue a warrant for the recordings. However, in most cases, those with CCTV footage cooperate with law enforcement and provide the information.

The Advantages of Public Camera Systems/Mass Surveillance

Public CCTV systems are part of life in some parts of the world, but not the United States. After the Boston Marathon Bombing, some started to push for blanket surveillance systems in U.S. cities. Although the U.S. Federal government has no such program, some cities such as Chicago, New York, Tampa, and others have shown interest in pursuing public CCTV camera systems. Privacy advocates are fighting these measures.

At the heart of the issue is not so much the system, which is neutral, but fears over how such a system may be used against ordinary citizens not engaging in crime. Some argue that the addition of police body cams amounts to a mass surveillance system.

Although the public at present appears opposed to mass surveillance, it is slowly adapting to cameras invading nearly every aspect of life via social media. With so many people using so many cameras for private use and so many installing personal CCTV security systems, the public will eventually accept the idea of complete government surveillance. It is only a matter of time.

To be sure, such systems are already in place in the UK and police detectives regularly use the footage to solve crimes and prosecute criminals. Certainly, detectives in the United States would support such a system as well.

The Limits of CCTV in Law Enforcement Investigations

Although the ability of law enforcement to identify and apprehend criminals is enhanced with CCTV footage, the technology is not without its limitations.

Some of the key limitations are borne of the technology itself. Not all cameras are created equal and whereas one may catch a person’s face clearly, another may not. One may be great at short range, another only in the dark, another only when someone looks directly into the lens.

In addition, extreme weather conditions may affect camera systems, power outages will clearly hinder their use, and when criminal elements become accustomed to their existence, they will be largely useless. Criminals can easily disable the systems, hack into them, or just smash them with a baseball bat. Either way, a camera can be made useless if the person committing the crime wants it so.

Too, situations out of Hollywood are not out of the question. What is to prevent a criminal group from hacking CCTV footage such that false footage is inserted? Could the system be used to frame others? These are issues which will eventually have to be dealt with.

What Are Privacy Concerns Related to CCTV?

Mass surveillance is nothing new. In Soviet Russia, the KGB engaged in mass surveillance of its citizens, the UK engages in it today, and even in the United States during WWII it occurred. In fact, at times of martial law, law enforcement in the United States may engage in any sort of surveillance and security measures those in charge deem necessary.

However, the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states,

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”

In terms of mass surveillance of the public, privacy advocates claim that this applies. But does it really?

When on considers that mass surveillance via CCTV would not occur in the home of the people, part of this amendment “houses” does not apply. In addition, government-run CCTV surveillance in public spaces would not impact the “papers and effects” element of this amendment. This only leaves “persons.”

In most cases where the Fourth Amendment has been applied to “persons,” the issue had to do with law enforcement physically placing their hands upon a citizen. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that law enforcement may ‘stop and frisk’ someone of whom they reasonably suspect of committing or in the process of committing a crime. This is called probable cause.

But when it comes to privacy of the person in public, can video feeds be provided to government bodies of persons who are not under suspicion? That is, if there is no probable cause, can the government film them going about their daily business in public places.

This is a question that will surely be challenged before the Supreme Court of the United States should mass surveillance systems become part of American life. To be sure, the question of whether a person has a right to privacy while in public spaces will be central to the issue. To wit, a person can undress in the privacy of their own home and certainly has the expectation of 4th Amendment privacy in that situation. The same person may not walk naked down the street, where there is no expectation of privacy. Given that, it seems likely that the SCOTUS will rule in favor of surveillance systems in public places.

Who Should Control CCTV?

One other factor which plays into the issue of CCTV in public places is who should control the data. At present, corporations such as Google and Facebook are in a frantic race to develop cameras which will fit on a person such that constant recording in public will be the norm. Google glass has the ability to record in real time every place a person goes. If this happens, whereas the government will be hindered in its ability to record the public, private corporations will have steady streams of access to the same forbidden fruit.

This will surely raise the issue of whether corporations should have such power over people and whether the government should be granted equal access. Further, it will raise the issue of who should control the data?

If the government gains control over the data, where does it stop? Should homeowners then allow their private feeds to be uploaded to government databases?

Should Homeowners Have CCTV?

Many homeowners today are installing CCTV cameras both inside and outside their homes. They should. Given the increases in property crime in America, CCTV footage can provide law enforcement authorities with valuable information should a robbery or burglary occur. In addition, simply having cameras present act as a deterrent to small time thieves and most homeowners will never have the more professional thieves target their homes.

Is it Legal for Apartment Renters to Use CCTV?

At present, there are no known regulations or restrictions on the use of CCTV in Apartment complexes. Apartment dwellers may install security cameras inside without restriction other than any which the complex owner may stipulate in the lease. This is not to say there are no restrictions.

There may be municipal restrictions. Be sure to check with local authorities prior to purchasing and installing cameras on the outside of the dwelling. In addition, check with the landlord as well. Some may want to be informed so that their maintenance personnel can either perform the install or oversee it. It is unlikely that any would restrict placing cameras outside the dwelling, but best to be safe and ask first.


CCTV like any technology is sure to raise concerns and bring unforeseen issues in society. Although there are numerous privacy concerns related to closed-circuit television, the advantages seem to far outweigh the concerns. From the ability of law enforcement to identify and apprehend criminals to the ability of prosecutors to prove cases, CCTV is largely an advantage to the criminal justice system. The law in many locations will have to be carefully structured in order to properly adhere to Constitutional concerns and many are sure to be challenged, but the United States is certain to join the UK and many other nations in implementing mass surveillance in public spaces. To be sure, CCTV technology is here to stay and is certain to grow in both popularity and practical use.