Cameras–they help? Where is the empirical evidence?

The Mayor and his people within the CPD have fallen in love with a device they state reduces crime. The device? Lamppost mounted video camera. City officials measure their affection for this modern rendition of the neighborhood watch with crime statistics. They say that comparing crime rates from one year to the next is a reliable way to measure whether or not the devices are working. But is it really?

Neither CPD Superintendent Phil Cline nor the Mayor himself has any reliable measure to determine one way or the other if crime is being reduced due to the camera. Why? The reason is that for centuries criminologists and sociologists have been struggling to determine the causes of crime. Now, this does not mean we are not without theories, because like opinions everyone has one.

In all academic and political fields the data turned up by researchers tends to reinforce the theory they are tied to. Does this mean that all the research in these fields is biased? No. What it does mean is that you need to look at the researchers’ or the politicians’ motivation for bringing forth the numbers they are and their methods for obtaining the data. In the case of these cameras little doubt exists that the Mayor is a significant supporter of their use and there is little doubt that he needs evidence of their value. There is also little doubt that any information that he would bring forward would be supporting his opinions.

The fact that the police put a camera up in front of a KFC in the 25th district and robberies were reduced at that location is not surprising. The Mayor is ignorant enough to claim such success as crime reduction. Somewhat dumbfounding is the assumption that such electronic policing wouldn’t motivate an individual robber go rob a store without a camera. If the potential offender never commits that robbery at either the original KFC or another location that provides for crime reduction.

The more likely scenario is that criminal will rob another store. That is displacement of crime and not anything to be proud about at a news conference. Displacement is a serious issue in the fields of criminal justice and criminology. Studying it is extremely hard, but the reality is not lost on street cops who joked with me about how the camera in front of the afore mentioned KFC just pushed the dealers three blocks in varying directions. This means the camera did not work, because it did not stop the dealing it just displaced it, right Mr. Mayor?

Author: Tracy Siska

Tracy Siska is the Founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Justice Project.
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