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Friday, July 28, 2006

Washington DC Lets Crime Panic Shape Crime Policy

I have a few issues with the recent emergency crime bill passed by the DC City Council. A recent upsurge in killings (which has since subsided, relatively speaking, to our traditional rate of mayhem, but not likely as a result of the bill, as none of its provisions appear to have taken effect as I type).

According to Councilperson Evan's newsletter, the specifics of the crime bill are as follows:

The emergency legislation, which passed 12-1, authorizes the Mayor to:

* Change juvenile curfew hours (established by the Juvenile Curfew Act of 1995) from 12:00 am to 10:00 pm;
* Use $12.9 million from the Contingency Reserve Fund to cover overtime costs to deploy 300 additional officers (see below for complete expenditure list); and
* Install 23 closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras.


The $12.9 million expenditure from the Contingency Reserve Fund, requested by the Mayor, will fund the following projects:

  • $8 million - to fund MPD overtime costs for the deployment of 300 additional officers for a period of six weeks;
  • $2.3 million - to install CCTV cameras;
  • $2 million - to fund overtime costs in other agencies to support and fund government operations associated with graffiti, abandoned vehicles, streetlights and blighted buildings;
  • $380,000 - to expand Partnership for Success to serve 100 additional youth;
  • $75,000 - to support girl/gang crew mediation and peace building initiatives;
  • $70,000 - to support expansion of recreation and street outreach in Police Service Area (PSA) 104 in Ward 6; and
  • $50,000 - to support and fund the Gang Intervention Partnership (GIP) in PSA 302 in Ward 1.
$2.3 million to install 23 cameras? That's $100,000 a camera. Does it really cost that much to install (not purchase) a camera? Even if that cost covers the installation of the rumored 300 cameras that are allegedly coming down the pike, that's still 8,000/camera. But nothing in Evans' breakdown of the bill indicates that the money is for anything other than the initial 23 cameras. I actually wrote Councilperson Evans to suggest that it would be a more judicious use of city resources to train reforming (incarcerated, paroled or otherwise supervised) youth to install the cameras, so they can acquire a job skill while the work is done, most likely at a cost cheaper than $100,000 a camera. He replied "That's a good point". I spoke with youth activist Ron Moten of the Peaceoholics organization and he thought it was more than a good point, he said it was something the entire Council should rally around (and expressed interest in holding a press conference to draw attention to the suggestion). $50,000 for gang intervention is a paltry investment in the future of the most at-risk youth in our city. If we're willing to pay a private contractor to install cameras at $100,000 per installation, we could at least invest half a million into gang intervention (especially since youth in gangs are more likely to have violent interaction than any other group in the city).

Then, there's the issue of the curfew.

Do we want to spend $8 million on police overtime and then essentially overburden police with the task of rounding up every youth who is caught on the streets after 10pm? While I agree in principle that people under 16 should probably be indoors by 10, I think it is a massive waste of police resources to have officers be responsible for detaining errant youth until they can be picked up by their parent or guardian. I would much rather have police resources dedicated to crime prevention and rapid response to serious crimes. If we did a statistical study of crimes committed after 10pm, I seriously doubt that residents under 16 make up a significant share of the offenders. There are a core group of offenders committing the vast majority of criminal acts in the city and criminalizing youth who violate the good sense principle of getting home before 10 won't put much of a dent in the activity of that core group. The vast majority of youth hanging out at this hour are probably wandering aimlessly or hanging out without purpose, but only a relative handful pose a serious threat to our citizenry. While this curfew may help the police sweep the streets of juveniles who are engaged in criminal activity, the police resources that would have to be expended to detain every person under 16 out past 10pm (especially in summer when daylight lasts late into the evening) is simply wasteful.

Let's discuss cameras.

Most importantly, social science indicates that cameras have no demonstrated effect on reducing crime (the linked study is a metastudy analyzing 22 individual studies on the use of closed circuit TV (cameras) and crime prevention, the five North Americans studies covered indicate that cameras have no effect on crime whatsoever). $23 million to install cameras that social science has proven have no effect on crime? That's poor urban policy.

These findings back up my personal view that hardened criminals will not be deterred by cameras. Cameras in liquor stores, banks, and other businesses have done little deter armed robberies or burglaries, much as red light cameras have done little to reduce red light running (otherwise, they would not be such an effective source of revenue...and even if one gathered evidence showing a marginal drop in red light running in camera-observed intersections, it is doubtful that red light running in non-observed intersections is affected). Additionally, police (and even citizen groups that aid them) lack the resources to monitor the cameras around the clock. Cameras cannot replace witness testimony in court. What good will the videotaping of a crime do from a law enforcement perspective if the taping is inadmissable? How will the presence of cameras deter crime in public spaces when the presence of cameras in businesses has not deterred crime on private premises?

I believe that Councilperson Fenty was right when he said the measures in the emergency crime bill "are not ways to stop crime". The question becomes, what measures would be more effective? The answer, I believe, would require extensive study of available social science and careful analysis of best practices used in other jurisdictions. Of course, such study would take time. And with a Democratic primary a few weeks away, time is a luxury at least twelve representatives on the City Council did not feel they had. Hopefully, Fenty will take his "no" vote a step further and work towards crafting a more effective crime policy.


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