Keeping An Electronic Eye on Crime

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A recent study of public surveillance cameras found that the technology’s effectiveness as a crime deterrent depends almost entirely on how a police department incorporates the surveillance footage into their daily operations.

When fully incorporated into community policing, authors of the Urban Institute study found, the technology can save a city as much as $4.30 for every dollar spent on it.

The study, the first comprehensive U.S. examination of how public surveillance cameras are used in law enforcement, focused on Chicago, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

While Chicago and Baltimore saw crime reductions in areas with cameras, cameras in D.C. had “no impact,” Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, said at a conference in Washington D.C. introducing the study Monday. La Vigne did not say why Chicago, Baltimore and D.C. were chosen for the study.

According to the study, the number of reported violent crimes and assaults in D.C. fell in areas with cameras, but they also fell in areas without cameras. Chicago, on the other hand, saw a 12 percent drop in the crime rate in areas with cameras, even after controlling for other factors, and in Baltimore’s Tri-District, cameras were credited with a 35 percent reduction in crime.

La Vigne said variations in how cameras were incorporated into daily policing accounted for the differences.

“Cameras could work in D.C. if they were integrated [with policing],” she said, noting that of the three cities studied D.C. used the least amount of active monitoring of the cameras.

According to the Washington Times, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Cathy Lanier questioned the study’s findings. Lanier said MPD has evidence of violent crime reductions in areas around the cameras.

Representatives of Chicago and Baltimore police departments were at the Urban Institute presentation in Washington of the study’s findings on Monday. They attributed their areas’ successes with the cameras to saturating areas with as many cameras as possible and then aggressively pairing the technology with staffing.

“It’s important to have live monitoring [instead of only viewing footage after a crime for evidence purposes],” said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

She said that cameras in Baltimore had shown a man grabbing a woman and dragging her into an alley. Officers were immediately dispatched and the man was arrested, stopping what authorities believed was a sexual assault in progress.

In Chicago, the police department has made it possible for all officers to watch surveillance video on their desktop computers over a wireless network. Chicago Police Commander Jonathan Lewin said the department hopes to soon make the footage available to officers on their Blackberry devices as well.

Surveillance camera technology can be expensive, La Vigne said.

Baltimore spent $8.1 million on its system, with the majority of the money going to start-up costs. Chicago spent $6.8 million, but most of the cost was related to staffing.

But both Baltimore and Chicago saw savings from the surveillance programs. In Baltimore, the city saved $334,000 a month on criminal justice and victims’ costs. In Chicago, the city saved $815,000 a month on criminal justice and victims’ costs.

No costs benefits analysis was done in D.C. because the cameras were determined to have had no impact on crime.

Editor’s Note: More coverage of the study is available at : WUSA, Washington Times, Baltimore Sun, WJLA, Government Technology, ABC7News (Chicago).

Read the research brief from the Urban Institute.

Quick Facts About Surveillance Camera Use in Cities Identified in Study

Baltimore: 500 cameras in downtown and high crime neighborhoods. Cost: $8.1 million. Cost benefits: $334,000 a month. Staffing: Monitored “around the clock” by trained retired police officers.

Chicago: 8,000 cameras (in a network including transit, public school, and other cameras) in two neighborhoods. Cost: $6.8 million. Cost benefits: $815,000 a month. Staffing: department wide access to the network.

D.C.: 73 cameras. Cost: not stated. Cost benefits: there was no reduction in crime so the study didn’t make an analysis. Staffing: up to two officers monitoring cameras during each shift, with one watching the cameras and the other working with other technology in the room.

Laura Amico is editor of the nationally recognized online reporting project Homicide Watch D.C., which covers every D.C. murder case from crime to conviction. She welcomes comment from readers.

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