Are CCTVs giving us a false sense of security?

CRIME scene, er, area: Quezon City's famed restaurant district. (www.spot.ph)

CRIME scene, er, area: Quezon City’s famed restaurant district. (www.spot.ph)

I’M ASKING this in light of an unfortunate development I witnessed last night involving my good friend Jude, while we were out dining and reconnecting with old friends. Before we even got to savor the dessert, Jude had lost his Martin Margiela shoulder bag, including his cellphone, a pair of Ray Ban aviator shades and a considerable amount of cash.

To add to his headache, the bag also contained his credit card, Philhealth card and house keys. By dint of hard work, they could all be replaced, of course, including perhaps (thanks to eBay) the limited edition Margiela leather bag.

But three thieves, which we were able to establish later after reviewing the building administration’s CCTV footage, were also able to run away with Jude’s late mother’s unique billfold. Now, that’s priceless and irreplaceable.

Now that it has become mandatory for business establishments in the Philippines, especially those in the service sector, to install their respective CCTVs as a supposed deterrent to crime, both serious and petty, does such a law really serve a purpose? Or does it simply add to an overload of useless after-the-fact information to a plethora of unsolved crimes plaguing Metro Manila and other urban areas? In CCTV parlance, allow me to backtrack a little bit.

STAY happy (and alert!) (globale-solutions.blogspot.com)

STAY happy (and alert!) (globale-solutions.blogspot.com)

“Weekend” crowd

Unlike the rest of yesterday’s “weekend” crowd (Thursday night this week became the new Friday, as it fell at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan, which we’re celebrating today), Jude and I weren’t out on a lark. It was more of an exposure trip, as we sampled one of the newest restaurants to open in Quezon City’s famed food district.

In other words, I was there to write about the restaurant, while Jude, a restaurateur himself, was there to soak up the scene.

Since the restaurant’s modestly sized air-conditioned area was bound to get crowded, Jude and I deemed it wise to dine al fresco while interviewing one of its owners, a mutual friend of ours, as well as the restaurant’s young, personable chef. We settled on a table by the main entrance, where the menu was also set on an easel for prospective customers to look at and leaf through.

In other words, our spot was a gathering point for people going in and out of the restaurant. Although the building had a security guard, the restaurant didn’t have one.

WHO'S afraid of CCTV? (www.targetsecurity.net)

WHO’S afraid of CCTV? (www.targetsecurity.net)

And even if it had a security guard, the entire multi-story complex’s layout would have made it hard, even impossible, for a single person to keep an eye out on everyone.

Professional thieves, in case you still didn’t know, always work in groups. While two or three find subtle ways to distract legitimate customers’ attention, one usually patiently bids his time before going for the kill.

Problematic layout

What made the entire complex even more conducive for people to blend in and disappear is its layout, which comes with a courtyard shared by the building’s tenants. It also has direct access to a busy street and several stairs that lead to a number of establishments on the second floor.

(www.securelogiescctvsystem.com)

(www.securelogiescctvsystem.com)

And true enough, an hour or so into our interview, the place was already popping mad with activity, as several groups of friends, including a number of familiar faces from college, decided to unwind and hold their respective mini reunions there.

When I came back to our table after a short trip to the restroom, Jude and the owner were already animatedly talking to the restaurant’s staff. By then Jude, who appeared strangely composed, had already learned that his bag, which he placed on an empty chair beside him, was missing.

For the life of him, he couldn’t remember anyone bold or suspicious enough as to run away with his bag. I, too, who was seated opposite Jude, couldn’t remember anything out of the ordinary, but I later recalled a couple of guys lingering behind him. He sat at the head of the table, with the restaurant’s busy entrance right behind him. Other than that, I didn’t notice anything unusual.

Strategic position

But as we carefully pieced together the situation, it

(www.redest.es)

(www.redest.es)

dawned on us that Jude was the perfect victim of a fast, patient, experienced and “lucky” band of thieves. Apart from his “strategic” position, his bag, unlike my LV Keepall, was small enough to be filched by a determined thief without anyone noticing.

After phoning the credit card company to tell them to block his card, Jude and I, together with the owner and two of his partners, trooped to the admin office to watch an already pre-reviewed CCTV footage of what transpired that night.

Like one huge puzzle, the flat-screen TV was divided into sections, as it showed various black and white scenes simultaneously captured by several cameras. The lone admin man who reviewed it sometime ago brought our attention to a group of three young men who looked like diners, but were in fact already casing the joint.

They even went to the second floor housing another restaurant. Since they probably didn’t see any likely prey, they went down and lingered in the courtyard before heading our way. They most likely had spotted a potential target.

Not only was the restaurant, including the entrance, busy with people, Jude and I were also so focused on what the chef and the owner had to say. The decently dressed thieves, one of whom carried a backpack, need not resort to any form of distraction. All they had to do was act normally, blend in, linger, leaf through the menu and wait for the right time.

(www.starelectronics.co.in)

(www.starelectronics.co.in)

One of them, perhaps in an attempt to test how occupied we were, even “accidentally” dropped the menu before quickly picking it up. In hindsight, Jude recalled the particular incident because the menu landed under the table almost right in front of him. He even turned his head towards one of the men before resuming his conversation with the chef.

In less than ten minutes, their efforts paid off. Just when everyone’s attention was somewhere else, the man with the backpack quickly and unceremoniously grabbed Jude’s bag before turning his back, slipping the item in his backpack and heading for the street.

His two companions, who, moments ago had distanced themselves from him, quickly followed suit, as the three thieves wove through the traffic before vanishing into the night with the evening’s loot.

SO, what? (www.tsk.uk.net)

SO, what? (www.tsk.uk.net)

Before I end this post, I’d like to share with you several observations that struck me while viewing the CCTV footage.

Observations

1. The coverage, which showed a dozen or so points within and even beyond the building, was impressive, but with one person manning it, how could he possibly keep tabs of everything and everyone being captured on several mini screens?

2. Apart from being black and white, images of people, including those of the culprits, weren’t clear and conclusive. How could you accurately identify the thieves, say, in a police lineup when you couldn’t even match their faces with those hazily captured images on CCTV?

3. Since there were so many cameras and not enough people to monitor them, the thieves weren’t caught red handed. We viewed everything after the fact.

4. Indeed, businesses, in compliance with the law, are investing on expensive CCTV equipment. But I have reason to suspect that since a big chunk of their budgets went into buying these devices, they now seem to be scrimping by hiring a token person or two to monitor the live feeds. Well, so much for the omnipresent Big Brother.

BIG Brother(s) is watching. (www.unitedcollege.org)

BIG Brother(s) is watching. (www.unitedcollege.org)

So, are CCTVs useless? Not really. But anyone who views them as an effective deterrent that would strike fear in the hearts of the heartless is gravely mistaken.

Like Jude, who was far from careless and would fight to the death like a lactating lioness to defend her cubs (a.k.a. designer stuff), found out, there’s virtually nothing that could stop determined thieves from pulling a fast one.

JUDE (fourth from left) and I, with Noel and Chito, at Frazzled Cook

JUDE (fourth from left) and I, with Noel and Chito, at Frazzled Cook

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