A couple of weeks ago, Chicago Transit Authority president Forrest Claypool announced that the agency would install high-definition surveillance cameras in 850 rail cars. There are already more than 3,600 cameras throughout the rail system, in stations and on trains, and the CTA spent a lot of money putting them there—approximately $26 million. “With more cameras, we will be able to step up our efforts to fight crime on the system,” said Claypool.
But the Chicago Sun-Times reports that rail-station crime has actually increased since the cameras were installed. The Sun-Times found that, in 2012, the number of crimes reported at CTA rail stations jumped by 21 percent year over year, and by 32 percent from 2010, prior to when most of the cameras were installed.
Many of these crimes involve theft, drug use, vandalism, and fare evasion. (CTA spokesman Brian Steele told me that much of the rise in crime is due to a 41 percent jump in fare evasion.) Violent crime, however, is down by 30 percent, while arrest rates are slightly up.
Given those stats, should we consider the CTA’s camera program a crime-fighting success or a money-wasting failure?
Surveillance cameras aren’t cure-alls—they’re tools, and imperfect ones at that. They can be easily foiled by the latest in apparel technology, including hooded sweatshirts and hats. They tend to break. They are susceptible to dirt, and bad weather, and darkness.
And even if a suspect is photographed, he still has to be identified and located, which, for overworked police officers, can be a daunting task. While there are more than a million closed-circuit surveillance cameras in London, a police report found that, in 2008, one crime was solved per 1,000 cameras—an abysmal ratio.
The CTA is following the lead of the Chicago Police Department, which over the last decade has installed over 8,000 surveillance cameras across the city. As a WBEZ-FM story put it last year, “Chicago may be the most heavily surveilled city in the nation.” As someone who has received multiple traffic tickets for allegedly running red lights at surveilled intersections in Chicago (the lights looked yellow to me), I can confirm that these cameras are excellent at punishing minor traffic infractions. But apparently they don’t do much to deter more serious crimes, as evidenced by Chicago’s shockingly high murder rate.
When cameras work, it seems, they succeed as part of a broader strategy. David Bradford, executive director of Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety, told the Sun-Times that surveillance cameras can be more effective when accompanied by signs that announce the cameras’ presence. The idea is to inform patrons that they’re being watched, stopping crimes before they start. While some signs have been placed in the CTA system, the Sun-Times found that they’re obscured in some stations and missing from others.
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