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More CTA cameras haven’t stopped increase in crime

Surveillance camersign CTA Station. | Provided photo

Surveillance camera sign at a CTA Station. | Provided photo

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Updated: March 27, 2013 6:03AM

Even with $26 million in high-resolution cameras finally in full force last year, reported crime at CTA rail stations rose 21 percent, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis shows.

And compared with 2010 — well before most of the CTA’s current 3,600 rail station cameras were installed — station crime was up 32 percent.

An invasion of glass and plastic balls with hanging lenses at CTA train stations has not stopped crime from rising, a Sun-Times examination of online Chicago Police Department data indicates.

The good news is that while overall crime is up, violent crime is down 30 percent. And when all reported crime is counted, Chicago is close to achieving swift arrests in two of every three station crimes.

The arrest rate for Chicago Transit Authority station and platform crimes has slowly improved — from 60.9 percent in 2010, to 61.7 percent in 2011, to 64.3 percent in 2012, the Sun-Times analysis found.

“We are apprehending [suspects] and arrests are up. I think that says something,’’ said 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran, a former Chicago Police officer. His ward includes the CTA’s Red Line — the top line for station crime.

However, some criminals “are committing crimes right up underneath the cameras,’’ said Cochran, who advocates more and flashier signs about camera surveillance in CTA stations. “They are bold, and they don’t care.’’

Guarding the gate

As the CTA and Chicago increasingly turn to cameras to combat crime, the Sun-Times examined online Chicago Police Department data for reported crime at CTA stations and on CTA platforms — areas teeming with $26.2 million in high-resolution cameras that can be monitored by authorities remotely, in real time.

All incidents on CTA property and within two blocks of a station were studied. The Sun-Times did not include crime on moving trains, where cameras are far more recent and rare.

For some, a 3.4 percentage point improvement in the station crime arrest rate over two years may seem minor compared with the 32 percent jump in crime — and the more than doubling of cameras — between 2010 and 2012.

“That’s hardly anything,’’ said Cecilia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council. “But any improvement is a good improvement.’’

However, Tina Skahill, the Chicago Police Department’s Chief of Special Functions, said she believes the arrest rate is even higher because the department’s online data reflects arrests made by the time a case is reported — not those resulting from follow-up investigations.

Also worth noting: Only five percent of CTA station crimes were categorized as “violent” by the FBI — ranging from murder to rape to strong-arm robbery — and such offenses dropped a substantial 30 percent between 2011 and 2012, the Sun-Times found. However, the arrest rate for those crimes also fell four percentage points over that period.

Other station crimes — a category that includes cell phone thefts, purse-snatchings, fare evasion, simple assault and drug crimes — were up 26 percent.

Combined with “violent” crimes, that translates into a 21 percent overall increase in station crime across the system’s 145 rail stations.

The most common offense — deceptive practice, often involving turnstile-jumping or other forms of fare evasion — soared 41 percent. The No. 2 crime of theft rose a hefty 27 percent, something police tie to cell phone thefts.

Chicago Police Department officials say the analysis indicates Police Supt. Garry McCarthy’s theory of how to prevent the most serious CTA crimes is working.

Since becoming superintendent in mid-2011, McCarthy has pushed a crackdown on fare evaders. He contends catching turnstile-jumpers often equates to stopping criminals before they escalate to more serious crimes inside stations, said Nancy Lipman, acting commander of the Police Public Transportation Unit.

“The superintendent calls it ‘guarding the gate.’ If you can guard the gate where people enter and arrest at that point, you can stop more serious crime from occurring,’’ Lipman said.

Cell phone targets abound

CTA spokesman Brian Steele emphasized that the chance of a crime occurring at a train station is small — roughly one per every 50,000 rides, the Sun-Times calculated.

And experts caution that many factors beyond the CTA’s control can impact crime. For example:

Rail ridership increased 4.2 percent last year, reaching its highest level in 50 years. That means more potential victims populated CTA stations.

Unemployment still nagged the city, particularly among Chicago youth.

And with the number of mobile devices nationwide now exceeding the U.S. population, passengers with cell phones are swarming CTA stations, posing targets for the system’s No. 2 crime of theft.

“There’s a growing number of people carrying electronics,’’ said Cochran. “There’s a growing number of people not aware of the need to protect electronics. There’s a growing number of riders. A growing number of unemployed.

“And a growing number of people who see opportunities on mass transit to find victims.’’

Reported crime also may have gone up, CTA officials say, because of arrests made by targeted anti-pickpocket teams and other CTA “rail-saturation missions.’’

‘We are watching you’

CTA officials insist cameras both solve and deter crime. News reports about suspects caught with the help of CTA cameras discourage potential criminals, some theorize.

Cochran said more signage trumpeting CTA cameras ­— and their power to help arrest suspects ­— ­might strengthen their deterrent punch.

The alderman favors something dramatic, like signs with CTA surveillance photos of suspects caught in the act next to ones of their mugshots. He said the caption could read: “Warning: You commit the crime, get ready to do the time. We are watching you. We are apprehending you.’’

Far tamer CTA signs bear the red icon of a camera above the words “Surveillance Cameras on Premises.’’ At least one such sign should be in every station, CTA officials say.

However, Sun-Times staff couldn’t find them at the Red Line Chicago/State stop — No. 2 systemwide for station crime — or the Brown Line Merchandise Mart stop. They were spotted in the Red Line 69th Street station, the Blue Line Irving Park stop and the Clark/ Lake platform, but in one case a staff member initially missed the sign because it was more visible from the pay area than the turnstile area.

Several regular CTA rail riders told the Sun-Times that if signs about cameras exist, they haven’t seen them.

“I think a sign maybe would deter some people,” said Red Line rider Andrea Larson, 21. “But I personally haven’t noticed any signs so I don’t know if other people have either.’’

The Sun-Times analysis indicates “people who are committing crimes don’t care about cameras,’’ said Robert Kelly, president of Amalgamated Transit Union 308, which represents CTA rail line workers.

“That’s a proven fact. Everybody in the world knows that banks have cameras and people still rob banks.’’

“Unrealistic expectation of safety?’’

Dissecting whether cameras actually deter crime is a tricky business, because so many factors can affect whether crime goes up or down, said David Bradford, executive director of Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety.

Closed circuit cameras that have populated Britain’s public areas and streets for some 15 years are “almost ineffective in preventing crime,’’ Bradford said the most recent study by the United Kingdom’s Home Office Research group indicates.

“Based on the research I’m aware of, closed circuit TV systems in and of themselves do not necessarily have a deterrent effect as far as preventing or reducing crime.’’

But there are indications, Bradford said, that cameras used as part of a bigger, overall enforcement strategy do have an effect. Surveillance signs that are “readily seen, and readily communicate the presence of a camera and that people are being recorded’’ can be one part of that strategy, Bradford said.

“The signage needs to be open and visible,’’ Bradford said. “Why have a sign trying to communicate something if you are going to hide it?’’

The “conventional wisdom when it comes to deterrence is that signs help,’’ agreed James Moore II, director of the transportation engineering program at the University of Southern California.

However, Moore said, some authorities might be concerned that posting big signs about cameras could create “an unrealistic expectation of safety,’’ causing passengers to assume swift help is at hand and to let down their guard.

Said Moore: “God knows what goes through the minds of city attorneys when they weigh these choices.’’

Contributing: Frank Main, Anna Heling

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