Is it safe to pee on the street?

By | May 15, 2017

The University of Otago plans to install 60 CCTV cameras in North Dunedin at a cost of 1.27 million trumpeted across the NZ media on Friday May 12th. The ODT headline, ‘Cameras to keep our students safe‘ creates the clear impression that Otago students are not safe, yet nothing I could find in the ODT article, or any others from Stuff, NZ Herald or even Critic presented a clear rationale for what seems like a gross intrusion on individual privacy, and not just of students. If the CCTV proposal was confined to campus that would be one thing, but, it is not. A large chunk of Dunedin to the north of Frederick street and south of George and Warrender streets is slated for surveillance. But this is public property, not University property. The University may be a large and influential corporate citizen in our town but that does not give it carte blanche to intrude on the privacy of the rest of us.

I love living in Dunedin. It is an increasingly diverse community. It feels safe, egalitarian and fair-minded. Friends are never far away, the landscape is stunning and I can always find a car park – um – other than close to the University. I have lived here happily for more than 30 years.  One of the reasons I enjoy living here is because Dunedin offers many of the benefits of a larger centre yet, thus far, has largely avoided many of the downsides of cosmopolitan living, including wall-to-wall surveillance. And yes, I know, we already have 14 cameras in the Octagon. However, the Octagon is squarely within the zone where most reported crimes in Dunedin actually occur.

So, where is the evidence of such an egregious surge in criminal activity that warrants the intrusion of 60 cameras on all our lives in Dunedin North? The Dunedin City Council website notes that there has actually been a 5% reduction in reported crime in the city in recent years. Statistics NZ crime data for 2015 mapped by Andy Fyers shows that there were three times as many assaults, sexual assaults and robberies to the south of Frederick Street than there were to the North and the number of incidents in North Dunedin in 2015 is slightly below the national average. So, on the basis of published reported crime data it is hard to see a strong case for intensive surveillance in Dunedin North, even assuming that CCTV surveillance would actually solve this problem.

Nevertheless, those of us who live and work in Dunedin are well aware of the glass on Castle Street, the drunken, antisocial and sexist behaviour, and the couch burning…especially around certain times of the University and Polytechnic year. Of course, not all students engage in such antisocial behaviour  – but some do. Some self-entitled students seem to think that feral behaviour is a right of passage. A telling comment from one little noddy, quoted in the ODT and the NZ Herald, pretty much sums up this attitude:

“[A] Castle St resident … and a group of his friends said they would be supportive of the plan as long as the university did not use the cameras to catch out students for minor offences, such as urinating in public.”

Apropos of which, for an interesting case study on just how antisocial culture manifests in the Dunedin student quarter, Mava Enoka writing in The Wireless reported on her encounter with some other Castle Street residents:

“Before I could even catch his name, the boy started to gyrate against me as I stood in the middle of the lounge. The Castle Street boys roared with laughter.

The guy, who’d apparently been drinking for nine hours, went in for a kiss.

“Can someone please come get him off me!?” I said. I was trying to process why a complete stranger would greet another person with sexual assault.”

A culture change is required – students do not routinely act out in airports, in shopping malls or in other public spaces. Why should they feel entitled to behave badly in North Dunedin? Surveillance systems may be useful for institutions to demonstrate that they are doing something or they may help police to identify culprits but as the article in Critic points out there is little evidence that public CCTV systems actually keep anyone safe – they would have made no difference at all to the encounter described above.

An analysis of 44 evaluation studies of CCTV in public spaces, predominantly in the UK, by Welsh and Farrington in 2009 found an overall 16% decrease in crime in experimental areas (CCTV) when compared to control areas (no CCTV). However, the authors note that much of this decrease was related to the effectiveness of surveillance in car parks. According to the authors,

‘Schemes in most other public settings had small and nonsignificant effects on crime’ (p. 716)

William Webster, writing in Surveillance & Society warns of ‘surveillance creep’ and cautions that when CCTV systems become normalised, the original purpose of the system may evolve and take on new functions without further discussion or debate. What other purpose might the proposed CCTV network be put to? Checking student attendance? Monitoring staff movements? Tracking or profiling ‘non-students’ (see ODT article)? If the University’s plan proceeds, critical consideration of these issues will be important and needs to form part of the wider discussion with the people of Dunedin.

With more than $1 million to spend and all the intellectual resource that a research-intensive university has at its disposal, one might hope that our local Critic and Conscience of Society could manage a more thoughtful and convincing response to behavioural issues than wholesale surveillance.  If the University is concerned to manage perceptions it can do this without impinging on the privacy of Dunedin citizens. If the University wants to keep its students safe from crime, the best advice, based on available evidence, would seem to be to advise students to travel no further south than Frederick Street.

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