Between 2007 and 2010, researchers from the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center studied public surveillance systems in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., to measure the extent of their use, their effects on crime, their other benefits, and their costs. While results varied by area, surveillance systems in Baltimore and Chicago produced more than enough benefits to justify their costs. No cost-benefit analysis was conducted in Washington, D.C., because the cameras didn’t show a statistically significant impact on crime there.
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WASHINGTON, D.C., September 19, 2011—With state and municipal budgets shrinking and public safety resources diminishing, public surveillance camera systems offer local law enforcement agencies a cost-effective way to deter, document, and reduce crime, a new Urban Institute study finds.
Between 2007 and 2010, researchers from the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center studied public surveillance systems in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., to measure the extent of their use, their effects on crime, their other benefits, and their costs.
While results varied by area, surveillance systems in Baltimore and Chicago produced more than enough benefits to justify their costs. No cost-benefit analysis was conducted in Washington, D.C., because the cameras didn’t show a statistically significant impact on crime there.
Much of the cameras’ success or failure depended on how they were set up and monitored, and how each city balanced privacy with security, said Nancy La Vigne, the study’s lead researcher and the director of the Institute’s Justice Policy Center.
“Overall, the most effective surveillance systems are those that are monitored by trained staff and have enough cameras to detect crimes in progress and investigate them after the fact,” La Vigne observed.
- The bulk of Baltimore’s 500-plus camera system was implemented downtown in 2005, with the remaining cameras placed in high-crime neighborhoods.
- Roughly four months after cameras were installed downtown, total crime dropped on average by more than 30 incidents a month--a 25 percent decline.
- Violent crime downtown fell by 22 percent and larceny fell by 30 percent. No evidence suggests that downtown crime simply moved to nearby areas.
- Findings indicate that the crime-prevention benefits of surveillance cameras may have extended beyond the downtown cameras’ viewing areas.
- Cameras in the Greenmount neighborhood led to nearly a 10 percent decline in crime.
- In the Tri-District area, crime fell by nearly 35 percent as a result of cameras after controlling for crime reductions in a matched comparison area.
- The North Avenue area, however, saw no crime reduction after cameras were installed.
- Overall, Baltimore’s surveillance cameras yielded $1.50 in benefits for every $1.00 spent on the system.
- Chicago’s extensive wireless surveillance network includes approximately 2,000 highly visible cameras operated by the Chicago Police Department and allows officers to watch real-time feeds from their computers.
- In August 2003, when cameras were initially installed in Humboldt Park—one of two areas studied--crime spiked briefly but then dropped 20 percent the next month and remained low on average for years.
- Evidence suggests that cameras alone were responsible for a nearly 12 percent decline in crime in Humboldt Park. Drug-related offenses and robberies fell by nearly 33 percent, and violent crime declined by 20 percent with no signs that crime moved elsewhere.
- Despite the presence of cameras, West Garfield Park, the second study area, saw no crime drop.
- The crimes prevented in Humboldt Park alone saved Chicago $4.30 for every $1.00 spent on the surveillance systems in both Humboldt and West Garfield.
In Washington, D.C.
- The study examined the impact of Washington’s 73 neighborhood crime cameras, which were installed in 2006–07 after crime flared up in specific D.C. neighborhoods.
- Responding to public concerns, the Council of the District of Columbia designed and implemented stringent guidelines for the surveillance camera program.
- These guidelines prohibit using the system to view flyers being posted or handed out, or to profile people by race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other characteristics.
- The guidelines also require the cameras to be monitored from a single control center with a police officer at the rank of lieutenant or higher present at all times.
- Cameras alone did not appear to have an effect on crime in the District.
Lessons and Observations
- Residents’ privacy rights must be considered and protected, but guidelines on surveillance system use that are too restrictive can limit their effectiveness.
- The cost of installing, maintaining, and monitoring camera systems far exceeds that of the camera hardware alone.
- Real-time monitoring enables law enforcement to zoom in on a scene and capture important criminal details that cameras programmed to run on an automated tour may miss.
- Law enforcement and prosecutors could benefit from training in retrieving and using camera footage to make and prosecute cases.
- Surveillance systems shouldn’t be viewed as replacements for patrol officers; to be effective, the technology should be fully integrated into law enforcement practices.
“Evaluating the Use of Public Surveillance Cameras for Crime Control and Prevention” was written by Nancy La Vigne, Samantha Lowry, Joshua Markman, and Allison Dwyer. The research was funded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, with supplemental funds provided by the Target Corporation.
The research team also produced a companion guidebook
for local officials and law enforcement agencies, “Using Public Surveillance Systems for Crime Control and Prevention: A Practical Guide for Law Enforcement and Their Municipal Partners.” A companion policy brief
was also released with the full report.
The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation. It provides information, analyses, and perspectives to public and private decisionmakers to help them address these problems and strives to deepen citizens' understanding of the issues and tradeoffs that policymakers face.