Surveillance cameras operated by the D.C. police department have failed to reduce crime as has occurred in other cities, in part because of the way the cameras are set up and monitored, according to a critical study of the four-year program.
Baltimore and Chicago have reported far better results with their surveillance programs, according the survey, conducted by the District-based nonprofit Urban Institute, which analyzed crime data in the District from January 2005 to February 2009.
“Cameras alone did not appear to have an effect on crime in the District,” the study concludes.
Nancy La Vigne, the study’s lead researcher, said the difference in the cameras’ effectiveness among the three cities appears to be in how they are set up and monitored.
“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,” she said.
In the District, the cameras are not always monitored live, Ms. La Vigne said, and concern about misuse and privacy violations before the installation greatly limited their effectiveness.
Though she credits the District for having a strict policy, Ms. La Vigne said the technology could be put to better use.
The Metropolitan Police Department began using surveillance cameras, mostly around federal buildings and monuments, in 2002. However, it was not until after a violent crime wave in the summer of 2006 that the police department began installing the cameras in high-crime neighborhoods.
An average of 70 crimes a month occur within 200 feet of the cameras, according to data analyzed for the study.
When 73 police-operated cameras were installed in high-crime neighborhoods in August and September 2006, the number of incidents decreased by 10 percent. However, during the summer months of 2007 and 2008, crime levels within 200 feet of the cameras were equal to what they had been before the cameras were installed, according to the study.
“When cameras first go up, offenders think, ‘Oh I shouldn’t be here.’ But very quickly they are going to get wise to the fact that people aren’t monitoring them,” Ms. La Vigne said.
Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier questioned the findings.
“We have evidence of violent crime reduction in the immediate vicinity of [closed-circuit TV] cameras,” she said Sunday.
The chief said the cameras are just one part of the department’s policing strategy.
“No one thing is the absolute in fighting crime,” she said. “Good policing is a combination of different tactics and strategies. The entire department has been focused on reducing violent crime for the last three years. … We evaluate the placement of cameras, as crime patterns may shift.”
In Baltimore, where more than 500 cameras were installed, retired police officers regularly monitor live camera feeds and report incidents to patrol officers who have had success stopping crimes in progress.
“The message got on the street very quickly that the cameras were being used,” Ms. La Vigne said.
For example, the crime rate in downtown Baltimore decreased by 25 percent in the first few months after cameras were installed, and there was no indication that criminal activity moved elsewhere in the city.
The District’s comparatively smaller number of cameras captured crimes less frequently on tape, the study finds, and when the cameras did capture criminal activity, the recordings were not always useful.
“Prosecutors and investigators expressed frustration that cameras may record a crime but that the footage of the crime may be of too poor quality to be useful,” the study states.
Upgrading camera equipment so that a viewer can zoom in on details of a crime without distorting the image would be of great help when crimes are caught on camera, the study says.