In the peculiar German debate over security cameras, opponents often argue (g) that they can only help solve crimes, not prevent them in the first place. They’re rarely challenged on this argument, perhaps because Germans are more comfortable with arguing about abstract principles than nitty-gritty empirical reality.
But the argument is easily and instantly refuted by the simple and true observation that solving crimes prevents crimes. The latest case-in-point is the Austin serial bomber, who terrorized Austin, Texas with random package bombs which detonated all over the city, killing several people. Here’s how the police found him:
It was not much — surveillance footage in and near an Austin-area FedEx store showing a man in a disguise dropping off packages. But for investigators from federal, state and local agencies who had been hunting a mysterious and prolific bomb-maker, it was what they needed — their first big break.
Up to that point in a two-week investigation, officials had never laid eyes on the man they believed was responsible for terrorizing the Texas capital since March 2. In the security footage, a red 2002 Ford Ranger could be seen, officials said. Because the authorities did not have a license plate number, they began combing through records — all of them, for every vehicle with the same make and model in Texas. Investigators then began trying to match the records with a white male, possibly in his 20s.
And there was another, more unorthodox clue from the surveillance video: the suspect’s hands. He was wearing pink construction gloves. Investigators determined the same type of gloves were available at Home Depot, and they began going through hours of surveillance video from Home Depot locations in and around Austin. They got a hit: security video from one store appeared to show the same suspect.
Officials had now whittled down the number of potential license plates and began tailing a handful of people. One of them turned out to be Mark Conditt — the man that the authorities now believe was the Austin serial bomber.
So security camera footage was the crucial key to stopping a man who was literally on his way to deliver another bomb when he saw the cops were after him, and blew himself up. It’s impossible to say how many people were saved from death or mutilation by security camera footage, but there’s no doubt some were.
People who oppose something on principle also like to claim that it doesn’t work, just to cover all the bases. In this case, though, that’s false. There are principled arguments to oppose camera surveillance in public places, but its opponents shouldn’t be allowed to get away with saying it doesn’t prevent crimes. It does.
I predict security cameras will be installed in more and more public spaces in Germany in the coming years. Germans are, at bottom, a pragmatic people. They may initially oppose some dastardly innovation from America on principled grounds — I still remember the hundreds of German opinion pieces in the 1990s ridiculing American smoking bans in restaurants and bars — but they will eventually cave in and quietly adopt policies which actually work. And security cameras work.