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Ronnie Reese/MEDILL

This Chicago police blue light surveillance camera at the corner of Chicago and Homan on the city's West Side wasn't enough to prevent an attempted armored truck robbery that left one suspect dead and the other wounded.

Police blue light cameras not deterring the most violent crimes

by Ronnie Reese
Feb 10, 2011


Ronnie Reese/MEDILL

Chicago murders by firearm or other means dropped sharply after blue light cameras were installed in 2003, but have remained steady as the number of cameras has since topped 1,000. 

Related Links

Chicago's Video Surveillance Cameras: A Pervasive and Unregulated Threat to Our Privacy (a report from the ACLU of Illinois, February 2011)

Cameras are a nice tool, not a police replacement

John Hagedorn has done extensive research on gangs and urban street culture, which, as major components of violent crime, are primary targets of police enforcement through blue light surveillance.

Hagedorn is an associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of “People & Folks: Gangs, Crime and the Underclass in a Rustbelt City.”

Are blue light cameras an effective deterrent to crime?

It would be a mistake to think that what this is about is deterring crime. It’s like CAPS – Community Area Policing. It’s all about the perception of concern by the police for safety in the community. The more blue lights they have, the more people think, “They are concerned with what I’m doing. Look, they’re watching.’ It’s not so much about crime, but it has to do with the perception that there’s concern.

What purpose do the cameras serve in the arrest and conviction process?

It’s not like they’re monitoring us everywhere. They’re recording things, so if a crime takes place, or there’s a robbery, they’re going to go back and look at the tape and see if they can pick out any of the people that are there. It’s a nice tool, but it has nothing to do with stopping crime.”

It would be interesting to ask them how many people have been convicted, and my guess is they’ll say, ‘We don’t keep that data.’ And that’s the surest sign – when they say, ‘We don’t keep that data’ – that that data doesn’t help them.

Is there an element of symbolism at work here?

Myths and symbolism are probably a major part of criminal justice policy. It’s the belief that something is happening – that having more cops means less crime, that this is safety to have a strong police force and be everywhere – to get people to believe that is the most important part of criminal justice policy. And, unfortunately, it covers up all sorts of other things. John Burge and police brutality has very little to do with all these CAPS or blue lights or whatever. This shouldn’t be treated like it’s a PR gimmick. This is what criminal justice is.

The blue light surveillance camera in the picture above was taken Jan. 27 outside of a Family Dollar discount store on the southwest corner of the intersection of Chicago and Homan Avenues in Humboldt Park.

Less than 48 hours later, on the same corner at the same intersection, 52-year-old Jimmy Townsend was shot in the head and killed in a shootout with the guard and driver of an armored truck parked at the corner.

Robert Cary, who was with Townsend, was wounded; he is now charged with murder, attempted armed robbery and unlawful use of a weapon.

Some city residents welcome blue light cameras – officially termed Police Observation Devices – into their neighborhoods as a preventive tool for crime.

But many Chicago communities are still victimized by brazen criminals and have some of the highest murder rates in the city, despite the cameras.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois called for a moratorium, review and regulation of Chicago’s surveillance system and questioned the effectiveness of the more than 1,000 police-installed blue light cameras.

“Numerous studies by independent scholars have concluded that video surveillance cameras in fact do not reduce violent crime,” the ACLU said in the report, which also cited the failure of city officials to support claims of drops in crime with reports or statistical data.

Mayor Richard M. Daley has defended Chicago’s cameras, the country’s largest and most integrated network, which, according to the ACLU, has cost the city more than $60 million.

“What cameras are,” Daley said Tuesday in responding to the report, “is to prevent crime, to tell criminals, ‘Yes, you are going to be focused [on].”

Presence alone has not been enough. The city hasn’t provided evidence of their claims that cameras cut crime and criminals disregard them.

“They doubt very seriously that [the cameras] work,” said James Highsmith, CeaseFire Englewood program manager, about the people engaging in violence in his community. “And the city hasn’t made any recent reports of that nature public.”

“It should be revealed to the public, and I think that would deter a lot of activity.”

Thirty blue light cameras were introduced in July of 2003, and an additional 50 were added by the end of that year. Chicago posted a sharp decrease in the number of murders by firearms and other means, from 598 in 2003 to 453 in 2004.

Since then, even though the number of cameras has increased to more than 1,000 from the initial 80, the murder rate has remained relatively steady, with an average of 462 murders over the past seven years.

Highsmith acknowledged that cameras have been useful in curbing open-air drug markets, but in terms of violent crimes such as murder, aggravated battery and aggravated assault, the cameras haven’t had much impact.

“It’s all about the perception,” Highsmith said.

In Little Village on the city’s Southwest Side, some residents and organizers have lobbied for more blue light cameras in a neighborhood with a 5 percent jump in overall crime from 2009 to 2010, the most of any Chicago police district.

One activist is challenging Ald. Ricardo Munoz.

“I’ve advocated for them for almost three years already,” said Raul Montes Jr., who said  he has collected 1,500 signatures in favor of the cameras. He cited escalating robberies and gang activity, and the proven success of cameras in helping to solve some crimes.

“How can the police be proactive if they don’t have one of the tools to curb crime, which would be surveillance – blue light – cameras,” Montes said.

Others in the area are skeptical.

Abraham Duenas, 30-year resident of Little Village and owner of the Catedral Café at 2500 S. Christiana Ave., acknowledged that the cameras might a good short-term deterrent to crime, but are not nearly as effective as live manpower and better street lighting.

“Cameras are not a replacement for a body – the physical body of a police officer,” Duenas said.

“If somebody wants to do something,” he added, “they’re going to do it whether there’s a camera or not.”