San Francisco’s 68 controversial anti-crime cameras haven’t deterred criminals from committing assaults, sex offenses or robberies – and they’ve only moved homicides down the block, according to a new report from UC Berkeley.
Researchers found that nonviolent thefts dropped by 22 percent within 100 feet of the cameras, but the devices had no effect on burglaries or car theft. And they’ve had no effect on violent crime.
Mayor Gavin Newsom called the report “conclusively inconclusive” on Thursday but said he still wants to install more cameras around the city because they make residents feel safer.
“When I put the first cameras in, I said, ‘This may only move people around the corner,’ ” he said. “But the community there said, ‘We don’t care, we want our alleyway back.’ No one’s actually had a camera up that they wanted torn down in the community.”
But not all city officials think it’s wise to spend money on public safety measures if the best thing that can be said about them is they have a placebo effect for worried residents.
“In their current configuration they are not useful, and they give people a false sense of security, which I think is bad,” said Police Commissioner Joe Alioto-Veronese. He added that previous studies of security cameras in other parts of the country have also shown that they do not deter violent crime.
The cameras have been installed in phases on some of the city’s roughest streets since 2005 with large concentrations of them in the Western Addition and Mission District and others in the lower Haight, the Tenderloin and near Coit Tower.
They’ve been controversial from the start. Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union say they’re a violation of privacy, and some members of the Board of Supervisors and Police Commission, as well as the city’s public defender, say they’re ineffective in fighting crime.
The cameras have contributed to only one arrest nearly two years ago in a city that saw 98 homicides last year, a 12-year high. The video is choppy, and police aren’t allowed to watch video in real-time or maneuver the cameras to get a better view of potential crimes.
Final report not ready
The city has spent $900,000 on the cameras so far and has budgeted $200,000 for 25 more cameras that need Police Commission approval to be installed. The commission has refused to approve the new cameras until seeing a report on whether they’re doing any good.
The city administrator contracted with researchers at UC Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society to do the study, and the group published its preliminary results this week. A final report is expected in a few months, and the Police Commission will hold off on approving any new cameras until then, President Theresa Sparks said.
Researchers examined data from the San Francisco Police Department detailing the 59,706 crimes committed within 1,000 feet of the camera locations between Jan. 1, 2005, and Jan. 28, 2008.
These were the total number of crimes for which police had reports – regardless of whether the crimes were caught on video. The idea was to look at whether criminals stopped committing crimes at those locations because they knew cameras were there.
Using a complicated method, researchers were able to come up with an average daily crime rate at each location broken out by type of crime and distance from the cameras. They then compared it with the average daily crime rate from the period before the cameras were installed.
They looked at seven types of crime: larcenies, burglaries, motor vehicle theft, assault, robbery, homicide and forcible sex offenses.
The only positive deterrent effect was the reduction of larcenies within 100 feet of the cameras. No other crimes were affected – except for homicides, which had an interesting pattern.
Murders went down within 250 feet of the cameras, but the reduction was completely offset by an increase 250 to 500 feet away, suggesting people moved down the block before killing each other.
The final report is expected to analyze the figures in more depth and to include other crimes, including prostitution and drug offenses.
Kevin Ryan, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said it’s premature to dismiss the use of the cameras based on the preliminary report. He said the report shows the devices change behavior in some instances. “At the end of the day, if the report does suggest what I think it’s going to suggest, that it can be an effective tool, we’re going to have to deploy it in the most effective way we can,” he said.
Real-time monitoring sought
Ryan is pushing for the cameras to be monitored in real-time like they are in Chicago and other cities. Those police departments are often able to catch crimes in progress and immediately respond. Newsom does not support that idea.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has long been a critic of the cameras, said the report is further proof they’re not improving public safety.
He said they’re no substitute for attacking the causes of crime and said money would be better invested in community-based policing, anti-violence projects in schools, and services that help ex-prisoners readjust to life in society so they don’t commit more crimes.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who heads the board’s public safety committee, pointed out that the report comes at a time when the city is facing one of its biggest budget deficits in recent memory.
He has supported the cameras because they make residents in high-crime areas feel safer, but he said that may not be enough of a reason to expand the program.
“We have to decide the fiscal value of that scarecrow strategy,” he said. “It gives people some psychological relief, but if the data shows the cameras don’t have the intended consequences, it’s going to come down to a matter of dollars.”