Are Safety Cameras Actually Reducing Crime? - NBC4: Columbus, Ohio News, Weather, and Sports (WCMH-TV)

Are Safety Cameras Actually Reducing Crime?

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There are now nearly 150 cameras monitoring local neighborhoods, and city officials said they are silently fighting crime block by block.

NBC4's Marcus Thorpe took a look at the program, and getting answers from neighbors, asking if they think the eye in the sky is making them safer.

It started as a pilot program, as the city of Columbus invests in the areas where crime has occurred most.

Some neighbors said they love the cameras, but others have their doubts, and some say it's an absolute invasion of privacy.

"Is it the best value to provide a tool or to provide additional police resources to take care of that?" said Stanley Thornburgh.

Thornburgh moved from Grandview to the Hilltop, and when he moved, he said, he saw what crime really was.

"I didn't have to see drug activity at houses or see that come-and-go traffic. For someone that's not from this environment, it's definitely been an eye opener," he said.

Now, the area is one of the hot spots for city-wide safety cameras.

"I think it has given us more information, more arrests, certainly given peace of mind to a lot of our communities. There's been a lot of community support for the cameras," said Michelle Mills, Public Safety Chair of Columbus City Council.

The cameras can show quite a bit. Video from a camera near Wayne Avenue shows a woman who crashed into a store. She collected herself and then fled the scene.

Another camera caught a pack of young people outside a store. One young man pointed a gun at someone. Police were called, and a short time later, officers arrested him.

The city has installed nearly 150 cameras in five neighborhoods since 2011. So far, the results have been promising.

Some of the most recent cameras were installed in North Linden, and the owner of a Sunoco gas station in the area said he used to see prostitution and gunfire.

Since the installation of the cameras, he said he hasn't seen the crime anymore. It's cost him business because some of the undesirables used to shop at the store, but he said he'll take safety over some extra money.

But is it working well enough for the neighborhoods?

"If you put a camera on an area that's been designated as a high crime area, prostitution or drug handling, you're going to find that that activity might shift one or two blocks down," Thornburgh said.

"We are certainly not here to say that the cameras are a silver bullet. We have never laid that claim. We always said there would be drawbacks to the cameras," Mills said.

Mills said council holds open discussion meetings, shows examples to neighborhoods on how the cameras work, what the limitations are, and how privacy is protected.

She said the safety cameras are a tool in the police toolbox.

"It not only just captures a crime, but it gives us information: license plates, vehicles involved in something … descriptions of people," Mills said.

Four of the five neighborhoods have seen a reduction in reported crimes, ranging from 49 percent to 14 percent.

Columbus is not alone. Baltimore operates more than 500 cameras in the downtown area and high-crime neighborhoods.

According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute, roughly four months after cameras were installed downtown in 2005, total crime dropped on average by more than 30 incidents a month, which was a 25 percent decrease.

Privacy experts say the cameras are here to stay, but warn that they can erode civil rights.

"This is a surveillance society. It gets to be that way more every day," said Gary Daniels, of the ACLU of Ohio. "I think cities mostly want to feel like they're doing something. Crime is such a complicated problem with so many variables. I think it's more of a feel good solution. Intuitively, it sounds right. Let's put up cameras and stop the bad guys."

But does it?

Daniels asks if the minimal end game is worth the cost, plus what he calls an invasion of privacy.

"Our concern is … everybody wants our communities to be safe. There is no doubt about that. It's a question of what is most efficient and inexpensive way to go about that," Daniels said.

NBC4 requested new statistics on crime in the areas with the cameras, but city officials couldn't deliver that information before the report aired.

Officials said the numbers should be available Friday, and NBC4 will provide the update when the statistics are available.

The city continues to accept applications and requests for the cameras. Officials said that by the end of 2013, there is enough money to have about 250 safety cameras in use.

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