Don't Force Stores to Surveil Customers

Don't Force Stores to Surveil Customers

Spy on your customers or face a fine — those are the two options business owners in Madison, Wisconsin will be faced with if the city government gets its way.

The Madison Public Safety Review Committee will meet this month to discuss a proposed ordinance that would require all convenience store owners to purchase and install surveillance cameras. The proposal from Mayor Paul Soglin would also dictate that these new cameras be aimed at each counter, entrance, exit, and gas pump. It would additionally require high resolution cameras to take a full frame shot of customers’ faces as they enter and exit the store as well as mandate that business owners keep all video archived for 30 days. Failure to comply would result in a fine of anywhere between $200 and $750, based on the number of violations. 

City officials argue the proposal is justified, citing recent robberies and “incidents” in convenience store parking lots. Police Chief Mike Koval described the requirement as “modest.” But there is nothing modest about the government forcing businesses to buy security cameras whether or not they want them. Koval argues that the cameras would help stop crimes. But business owners already have a profit motive to prevent crimes from happening. Obviously, they do not want their cash registers robbed, and they will most certainly lose business if residents feel unsafe while shopping.

What’s more, Koval’s assumption that increased surveillance leads to more security is itself flawed. A study by two British scholars, titled CCTV and the Social Structuring of Surveillance, found that a vast majority of surveillance targets were not connected to any form of criminal activity. Only 23 percent of those who were targeted with CCTV cameras were even suspected of a crime, while 45 percent were surveilled for “no obvious reason.” The study also found that teenagers, racial minorities, men, and the working class were disproportionately the targets of surveillance. 

Many of the most surveilled cities don’t get much bang for their buck when it comes to cameras. Las Vegas has upward of 500,000 CCTV cameras, but has had persistently higher crime rates than similarly-sized metro areas and the United States average. Across the pond, London has over 1 million CCTV cameras. But according to a report from the Metropolitan Police, only one crime per 1,000 cameras is solved each year.

Keep in mind that police would be able to demand access to archived footage, and have done so in other cities. So given that every store would be equipped with these cameras, the city would effectively be able to track every move its citizens make. Most business owners would be reluctant to spend time and money fighting this overreach.

Madison’s policy can have more tangible costs as well. Small businesses dominate the convenience store industry, with 63 percent of shops nationwide being owned by single-store operators. While average store revenue was around $650,000 in 2016, net revenue (or the profits the average store owner is able to take home) was a mere $66,000. Forcing small businesses operating on narrow margins to pay for expensive security systems can hit the middle class hard. 

Of course, an argument could be made that the ordinance would save businesses money by reducing incidences of theft. But industry experts suggest that security cameras are a flashy, but ultimately less effective, method of deterrence. According to Jeff Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores, when trying to reduce the amount convenience store owners lose to theft, security cameras take a backseat to clear lighting, reduced window signage, and reducing cash on hand. The police department of Portland, Oregon agrees with this assessment, mentioning surveillance systems almost as an afterthought. 

Furthermore, a strong body of research suggests that the costs of regulations tend to get passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. Because the poorest Americans spend the highest percentage of their income on grocery-type items that convenience stores sell, price increases affect them most. Steve Noll, a marketing professor at Madison College, points out that a potentially five-digit investment can be prohibitive for a family-run business, forcing them to increase prices. 

This proposal would grant city officials a startling amount of leeway to surveil citizens, while simultaneously hurting an industry dominated by small businesses. Madison should reject such heavy-handed methods of theft deterrence and let business owners decide for themselves which investments make sense. 

Dan King is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in Arlington, Virginia. He can be found on Twitter @Kinger_LibertyAndrew Wilford is a Maryland-based tax policy researcher and a Young Voices advocate. Follow him on Twitter @PolicyWilford.

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