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Blue-light cameras get mixed reviews on deterring crime

5-22-08 CLOSEUP OF BLUE LIGHT CAMERA. IN NEIGHBORHOOD. Amy Shilts lives apartment Angel Ramirez was murdered front .  A

5-22-08 CLOSEUP OF BLUE LIGHT CAMERA. IN NEIGHBORHOOD. Amy Shilts lives in the apartment Angel Ramirez was murdered in front of . A bullet went through her window. She maintains the shrine to Angel. She is a cocert pianist and is moving out of the neighborhood. Loaction is 2854 W. 21st street in Pilsen. sun-times photo by al podgorski

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Updated: November 30, 2011 12:17AM

Chicago’s blue-light cameras have become a fixture in high-crime neighborhoods since they were first installed in 2001, but do they really deter crime and help prosecutors convict criminals?

A study being released Monday gives the surveillance cameras a mixed review, saying they appear to have prevented crime in one neighborhood but not in another — and that the video quality is usually poor and rarely leads to a conviction on its own.

The Urban Institute focused on Chicago Police Department cameras in sections of Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park. Crime there was compared with crime in similar areas without the cameras.

The study found crime decreased more than 12 percent — or 38 fewer crimes per month — in the Humboldt Park study area from 2001 to 2006. The researchers found crime didn’t appear to migrate from the study area into the surrounding neighborhood.

Over the same period, though, crime didn’t fall at all in the West Garfield Park area.

One theory for the disparity: There were 53 cameras per square mile in the Humboldt Park area versus 36 per square mile in the West Garfield Park area.

“The difference in camera saturation could have an impact on the degree to which cameras are able to catch crimes in progress and thus officers to intervene, make arrests and deter other potential offenders,” the study said.

Still, researchers said the cameras were worth their cost. The city spent $6.8 million to install and operate them. But for every dollar spent, the societal benefit was $4, according to the Washington-based Urban Institute, whose study also looked at cameras in Washington and Baltimore.

The study said there are about 2,000 blue-light cameras across Chicago, part of a network of 8,000 cameras tied into the city’s emergency system.

Beyond their deterrence value, the study looked at how valuable the blue-light cameras are to police and prosecutors when they take a case to court.

“Both investigators and prosecutors lamented the fact that the video quality is often poor,” the study said.

Officers have made more than 5,000 camera-related arrests since 2006, said Lt. Maureen Biggane, a Chicago Police spokeswoman. But prosecutors said other evidence is normally needed to win a conviction.

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, said footage from the surveillance cameras is regularly reviewed in criminal investigations. “When it comes to blue light cams, they almost never capture the crimes that we review,” Daly said. “No one I spoke to here can recall a case where we utilized these cameras to gain a conviction.”

But they are helpful in corroborating or sometimes disproving a defendant’s or witness’ version of the details of a crime, Daly noted. For example, a defendant might say a car was traveling in one direction and the video shows it was going the other way.

The study didn’t make any conclusions about whether more cameras are needed or whether they need to be redistributed. It suggested giving the public more input in decisions involving blue-light cameras, as well as more training for police and prosecutors in using the videos as evidence.

Since 2006, the department has installed better, lower-cost cameras, Biggane said. Also, 911 dispatchers now have real-time access to video of crime scenes when they are within 100 feet of a blue-light camera, she said.

“We are currently reviewing the effectiveness of a recent initiative in the 11th district involving a high concentration of POD cameras on one specific beat,” Biggane added.

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