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Guys, what did I tell you about using the security cameras for staring contests?

Security cameras that would, if functioning, have captured images of the perpetrators, were actually non-functional. An issue encountered frequently by detectives solving crimes in modern-day settings, such as in Police Procedural shows.

Typical reasons include:

  • The camera was pointed in the wrong direction.
  • The recording device the cameras are attached to stopped recording (back in the days of VCRs they commonly "ran out of tape").
  • The camera wasn't plugged in.
  • The camera had been otherwise turned off by someone.
  • The perpetrators covered the camera's lens.
  • Just happened to be broken, especially if the writers aren't feeling creative.
  • Statistics show that having a camera deters some crime, and a broken camera that looks functional is cheaper than buying a working one or getting it fixed. Because of this commonly-known fact many businesses install empty casings that look like security cameras.

Compare Insecurity Camera, where the cameras are stupid, and you're supposed to be able to avoid them. Another way of putting the difference is that Insecurity Camera is from the perspective of a (hopefully successful) trespasser while Useless Security Camera is from the perspective of guards, owners, and law enforcement having to catch a successful trespasser.

This frequently happens in detective and Police Procedural shows, in part to prevent the detectives from having an easy way to find the perp. (The less time left in an episode, the more likely the camera is to work, sometimes.)

Examples of Useless Security Camera include:


  • In Rivers of London, the first murder is caught on CCTV, but a key event in the lead-up to it, vital to figuring out who did it and why, occured just outside the camera's field of view.

Live Action TV

  • In one episode of Breaking Bad, DEA Agent Hank Schrader is trying to interrogate a gas station clerk to find out who sold her some meth. When he finally realizes she knows nothing, he looks up and asks if the security camera is regularly on. It isn't.
  • Often happens in CSI. Usually whenever crimes take place in corner shops the owner will imply that it's not a real camera (or that it doesn't work) without even having to say it.
  • Subverted in Grimm: they couldn't find the perp with the security cams, but they were able to identify the murder victim and the people standing closest to her so they could question them about the crime. They were also able to nudge an uncooperative witness by reminding him he'd been caught on camera.
  • Also happens in Law & Order and its subseries.
    • Double Subverted in one Law & Order episode, in which a store camera is both active and shows the killer dragging his victims to where he kills them. The only reason it doesn't get used is because the killer had the video and the trick police used to stall him so he couldn't destroy the evidence before a search arrant arrived was more than the judge was willing to let slide.
  • In an episode of A Touch of Frost, Frost asks Toolan if he managed to get the evidence from the camera for a murder that had happened in an alley, only to be told that it was facing the wrong way.

Newspaper Comics

  • In Bus Stop, Jason tries to find someone that he knew rode on a specific bus on a specific date, so he gets in touch with the bus company to try to look at their security camera footage. Turns out the bus camera only turns on if the driver activates the emergency switch. No emergencies happened on that particular date, that particular bus, so there was no footage to see.

Western Animation

  • Used then subverted in Arthur: A store that Buster steals an action figure from has a broken camera, but Buster thought it was working and confesses.
  • Subverted in Phineas and Ferb: A traffic cam caught not only the boys' inventions, but Perry's comings and goings for the OWCA.

Real Life

  • Common in Real Life. Many retail stores use dummy cameras to discourage criminals, but these are usually in tandem with a few working ones. In fact, the reason why most in-store CCTV footage is crap and blurry grainy is that the store owners are cheapskates who are recycling the sme batch of video cassettes over and over again until they're over-recorded so often they are literally worn out.
  • Truth In Television in Britain (especially London) where there's the highest concentration of security cameras in the world, but most of them are of incredibly low quality and pointed where they're only of what little use they are for protecting their owners' property (rather than there in case some poor Victim Of The Week flees that way).
    • The UK also experimented with Automatic Numberplate Recognition cameras on city streets, but initial hopes of using them to crack down on uninsured drivers and other low-grade motoring offences were thwarted when the police discovered that nearly one car in ten was being flagged up. Even if the OCR technology or the Police National Computer's records were 100% reliable and accurate, and even the finest systems that money can buy throw up false positives every so often, actually reacting to the information received would have been like trying to bail out the sea. The ANPR cameras are now only used to look for vehicles that have been reported stolen or in connection to another offence.
  • This image from Fail Blog.