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Crime Tue Aug 10 2010

The Politics of Watching: Cost/Benefit of the Cop-In-A-Box

[This piece was submitted by freelance journalist Shane Shifflett, photos by Andrew Huff]

Millions of federal dollars have been invested in miles of fiber optics in Chicago and more than 1,000 surveillance cameras to create one of America's most sophisticated crime-fighting networks. There is, however, a problem: No one knows how well it actually works.

Nancy La Vigne, the director of the Criminal Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and her team of researchers want to rectify this.

Their conclusion, which has yet to be publicly released, seems unique among the small number of similar studies conducted in other U.S. cities.

"The use of cameras is cost beneficial," La Vigne said.

To reach their conclusion, researchers compared the number and types of crimes in Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park to other neighborhoods that were statistically similar but without cameras. They discovered that for every $1 spent on cameras, the city saves $2 by preventing crimes, she said. By reducing the burden on the legal system society saves money, La Vigne said.

"There weren't many rigorous studies of the cameras impact in the U.S., and even now they are a bit piecemeal, so we wanted to do something more comprehensive," she said, adding that two basic questions need answering: Have these cameras changed the city's crime levels for the better? Is it cost effective to use the cameras?

Other studies in the United States have tackled the question of the cameras' crime-fighting capabilities. Jen King, a researcher at the University of California Berkeley, contributed to a study of San Francisco's police camera network that found the cameras were effective at deterring property crimes and when combined with other policing tactics.

But most have yet to address whether or not cameras are cost effective because it's a complicated public policy question, King said.

Not only do many teams studying cameras lack a public policy expert, but counting the number of crimes cameras actually deter and putting a price on each crime prevented requires a lot of estimating, she explained.

Though the public hasn't seen the study, it already has critics. Popular Chicago bloggers Second City Cop posted a scathing entry after the first news stories started to emerge from ABC Chicago. In it, Second City Cop argues that the neighborhoods studied aren't appropriate candidates for drawing conclusions from "a comparison of West Garfield and Humboldt Parks is a study in opposites. And claiming POD [Police Observational Devices or the surveillance cameras] had anything to do with it [reducing crime] is to ignore the realities on the ground."

La Vigne said Humboldt Park saw a dramatic drop in crime, specifically violent crimes and property crimes, after the cameras were installed, but West Garfield Park didn't. While she didn't know why crime fell in one area and not in the other, La Vigne is convinced that camera saturation played a role.

Second City Cop claims the reason is that Humboldt Park gentrified while West Garfield Park remained a "disaster zone." They haven't responded to requests for further comment.

"I don't believe that impact was fully due to gentrification," she said. La Vigne added that while it's possible other factors could have influenced crime, the cameras in those neighborhoods were used in conjunction with policing tactics that can increase their effectiveness.

Community members align more closely with La Vigne in some respects.

"I don't think gentrification has had an effect on crime," said Alicia Ivy, a block club president and resident of West Humboldt Park.

Parts of Humboldt and West Humboldt Parks are gentrifying but crime is still a problem for the area despite the cameras, Ivy said. She pulled out a document of crime statistics citing a steady flow of drug and violent crimes over the last 10 years in the 11th Police District, which includes Humboldt Park, West Humboldt Park, and West Garfield Park.

Documents available at the Chicago Police Department's website paint the same picture. Murders so far this year in the 11th district, 26 in all, are the highest of any police district in 2010. Violent crimes and thefts for this year and 2009 are also among the highest of of any police district in the city.

The Chicago Police Department has not responded to requests for an interview.

Police installed cameras on certain corners that were crime infested in West Humboldt Park after receiving requests from residents and the alderman, but not all stopped have the drug dealing or violence, she said.

"I can tell you personally, although the cameras may have been effective in some areas, the amount of gang and drug activity has increased in others," Ivy said.

The saturation of cameras in these neighborhoods is far less than in some other areas in the city. Chicago's Loop has the most, with at least 123 cameras, while Humboldt Park has a minimum of 47 and West Garfield Park has at least 16, according to an analysis of police documents obtained in April through a Freedom of Information Act Request.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has called into question the usefulness of the cameras.

"There may well be a role for the systems in solving crimes," said Ed Yohnka, the director of communications for the ACLU of Illinois. "But I don't think anyone has figured out how to grapple with it yet."

Yohnka points to studies conducted in the U.K., where cameras have been in place long enough to be properly studied, that found the cameras don't have "much of a [crime] deterrent effect anywhere." The cameras may displace crime, but there are limitations with the technology and how effective the cameras can actually be, he said.

The Institute is aiming to release the study at the end of the year. Presently, the study will go through a peer review process to ensure to the integrity of its findings, she said.

Some would have liked to see the Institute study more areas to have more firm conclusions about the ability of cameras to reduce crime.

"If they studied 10 areas in the city then it [the differences] could be balanced out by other areas," said Rajiv Shah, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Shah studies surveillance technology and keeps tabs on issues surrounding cameras on his blog, Smart Cameras.

Determining the reason for the difference in the crime levels of both neighborhoods will be difficult because of the number of variables that can affect crime. Changes in the local economic conditions, the aggressiveness of police in the area, and even the layout of the buildings in the area can all impact crime, Shah said.

Because cameras are seemingly everywhere in Chicago, finding neighborhoods to observe where a demographically similar neighborhood without cameras existed was a challenge, La Vigne said. To come to a conclusion about the cameras, La Vigne feels researchers need control areas that are the same in every way except for the variable under scrutiny, which were few and far between for this study.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.

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B K Ray / August 12, 2010 8:05 AM

The truth is that they may have an initial impact, but in the long term they don't 'prevent' crime. When cameras were placed in my community, crime under them stopped. Then it started back, and now it rolls full fledged, as though the cameras were not there at all. They may come into play after a crime, when attempting to put someone away. Having that evidence at the ready may help in putting someone away, but it did nothing to prevent the crime from occurring in the first place, which is really what we want.

As it is they are currently underutilized. They need to be live-streamed onto a website where citizens can direct police to criminal activity as it goes on, not maybe when someone might be caught after committing a crime. Also it will help to engender trust in the police, which is currently severely lacking which helps to precipitate crime as well.

Dennis Fritz / August 12, 2010 10:51 AM

Has a serious crime ever bee caught on one of these cameras? I cannot think of one instance where that has happened.

Shane Shifflett / August 12, 2010 3:11 PM

Dennis. I haven't discovered any instances of cameras recording violent crimes and an arrest being made as a result of the footage.

There was a pregnant woman murdered in 2007. The cameras were used to track down witnesses, but those I've talked to about the situation say the footage was too grainy to identify the shooter's face.

There was also a youth beaten to death near a South Side school. Though there was a camera near, it was focused elsewhere during the fight, according to this article.

Most instances of arrest due to footage captured by these cameras seem to be quality of life crimes. People drinking on the street, etc. But that is difficult to say with confidence as the police haven't provided much detail on this subject.

Mike Reilley / August 13, 2010 9:14 AM

I agree that the quality of the video is often too poor to ID, let alone convict, anybody. My hope is that the technology will improve. When Chicago first installed the cameras, I wondered what, if any, benchmarks would be set. Never saw any, nothing that the taxpayers can hold the city accountable too. Doesn't matter, as this story shows, because they haven't seemed to catch much. But with the hardware in place, will it eventually pay off?

gpblight / August 23, 2010 3:20 PM

There is a camera at Wilcox/Francisco in East Garfield Park. NOBODY watches the camera. The result is that gang/drug activity go on plain view...under the camera...with the 11th District...NOT WATCHING despite they have numerous calls from residents to HELP. The 2900 W. Wilcox block and vicnity is an inner city War Zone. Any resident can be shot day or night. The study is FLAWED because it only included data supplied by CPD who have an interest in making things look better than they really are on the streets. There should at least be a footnote...that no other opinion or data was examined!

Stewie / August 23, 2010 4:11 PM

I've also noticed that there is plenty of drug activity on the corner of Francisco and Wilcox, directly underneath the camera. Cameras are just a tool, and like any tool, they are useless if not utilized, which is often the case.

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