Skip to main content

The Psychology and the Politics of Nightclub Surveillance Video

Research shows that “feeling safe” is highly subjective.
(Photo: sickmoo/Shutterstock)

(Photo: sickmoo/Shutterstock)

Last week, pro football player Aaron Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder for the killing of his friend Odin Lloyd after a disagreement at a nightclub in June 2013. Surveillance video footage played an important role in the trial, for both the prosecution and the defense.

In order to demonstrate Hernandez’s volatile personality, the prosecution called a witness who testified about meeting Hernandez at the club the same night of his altercation with Lloyd. When she didn’t want to dance with Hernandez, she said, he became “agitated” and “aggressive.” Hernandez’s defense attorney then tried to undermine that testimony with video footage from inside the club that showed the witness dancing with Hernandez, seemingly willingly.

Surveillance video can indict or defend, however, depending on how it’s spun; prosecutors also used several hours of video footage of Hernandez’s house to try to demonstrate that he was acting calmly, normally, and without remorse, just hours after the shooting.

As helpful as video can be in solving crimes, people don’t tend to feel that it will prevent a crime from happening in the first place—especially as the night gets late, and the alcohol flows.

Bar and nightclub surveillance video has played an important role in prosecuting many crimes of late, like the “deadly confrontation” between a Los Angeles Police Department officer and another clubgoer in Los Angeles, a string of assaults by an off-duty cop moonlighting as a security guard at a club in Denver, and even a 12-year-old video of an encounter between two men in a bar in Salina, Kansas, that prosecutors said escalated to a fatal stabbing when the men took the fight outside.

Video cameras may make crimes like this easier to solve after the fact, but what, if any, impact, do they have on how safe people in clubs and bars feel? Or on the likelihood that crimes will be committed in the first place? That’s the question that “urban geographers” Jelle Brands and Irina van Aalst at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and their colleague Tim Schwanen at Oxford in the United Kingdom, tried to answer in a new article in the journal Geoforum.

In the “night-time economy,” as the authors call it, bars and clubs have to decide the best ways to prevent crime, and to keep people feeling safe without feeling stifled. Some venues hire security guards and bouncers at the door, some ask on-duty police in the area to keep a close patrol of the outside, and many use closed-circuit video surveillance cameras to monitor the crowds inside and out. The authors asked survey participants about their “subjectively experienced safety” in different hypothetical scenarios, as different factors changed. As the authors had previously found, while the general purpose of CCTV is well known, “CCTV does little to enhance safety in situations of potential or actual threat, especially when CCTV cameras are not watched in real time in control rooms.”

As helpful as video can be in solving crimes, people don’t tend to feel that it will prevent a crime from happening in the first place—especially as the night gets late, and the alcohol flows. For that, bouncers and cops in the area are more important. On the other hand, bars and clubs must strike a balance. The presence of too many bouncers, guards, and police officers can also make people anxious, by reminding them that there is a reason for all those precautions.

It’s also true that just how safe those precautions make people feel depends a lot on who those people are. The results of the study show that non-Western or non-white clubgoers reacted much more positively to the presence of CCTV cameras than to additional door staff. The researchers theorize that this could be because of these minorities’ negative experiences with bouncers in the past. “Perhaps they consider CCTV cameras recording footage a more neutral (and hence beneficial) technique that is less affected by stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of appearance,” the authors write.

Female participants also tended to appreciate the presence of door staff more than males did; the authors attribute this to the pattern that “door staff are more likely to let girls and young women enter nightlife establishments and are also more protective of them.”

As neutral an eye as a video camera may seem to be, some social researchers argue that video surveillance has an inherent set of gender politics as well. Hille Koskela from the University of Helsinki has written, “video is unable to identify situations where a [gender] sensitive interpretation of a social situation is needed.” Verbal harassment, sexual intimidation, and staring are examples of the types of social situations that grainy black-and-white footage just can’t convey. (Aaron Hernandez’s nightclub witness would likely agree.)

Koskela’s 2000 journal article “The Gaze Without Eyes” argued that surveillance cameras inevitably change whatever space they occupy. Power dynamics, not just neutral recordings, are at play, she wrote. The 2013 piece quoted above—"'Peeping Tom' Goes High Tech?"—dealt with the potential use and abuse of video surveillance with regard to sexual harassment. Harassers are hard to identify by video, and more can be created, in a sense, by the video-viewing experience itself. Who sits on the other side of the cameras, and who is watching the watchers, makes all the difference.

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.