Steve Chapman

If you want to be on TV, don't go to Los Angeles or New York. Come to Chicago, where your wish is certain to be fulfilled. In fact, you couldn't avoid it if you wanted to, thanks to the nation's most extensive network of police surveillance cameras. Anytime you walk out your door, you may find an audience.

This is one of Mayor Richard M. Daley's proudest achievements, but the estimated 10,000 devices now in operation are not enough for him. He once expressed his intention to keep adding cameras until there is one "on every street corner in Chicago."

His obvious error is to assume that if some cameras are good, more are better. Daley's policy also rests on a plausible but unproven assumption: that cameras reduce crime by deterring criminals and helping nab those who aren't deterred.

If you are going to spend millions buying, installing and monitoring this technology, you had better be able to show it yields some positive results in practice. Given the experience in this country and abroad, skepticism is in order.

The government of Britain, where cameras are ubiquitous, concluded they have had "no overall effect" on crime. Researchers at the University of Southern California looked at two neighborhoods in Los Angeles and found no visible benefit from this sort of surveillance.

Even in the studies that show cameras help, the question arises: compared to what? Any funds spent on this gadgetry cannot be spent on beat cops, probation officers, laboratory gear or jail cells. The challenge for enthusiasts is to show the technology outperforms other options.

On those issues, the jury is still out. But the latest discoveries, from Chicago, are bound to encourage the spread of surveillance video in law enforcement.

Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, has directed a study of the impact of cameras in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Her preliminary findings, due to be finalized and published this year, are that they can indeed curb crime -- and at a bargain price.

Her team of researchers looked at two high-crime neighborhoods on Chicago's West Side, Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park. In Humboldt Park, she told me, they found "a significant decrease in total monthly crime numbers," including both property crime and violent crime. They found no evidence that the cameras merely pushed crime into other areas. In West Garfield Park, on the other hand, they saw "no impact," possibly because there were fewer cameras.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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