The City of New Orleans announced a plan yesterday to combat crime and prevent terrorism. The plan, available here, calls for a variety of actions which in theory will deter crime citywide. All told there were six “safety & security” actions and eleven French Quarter initiatives announced.
The city’s plan calls for two main steps that are intended to impact crime citywide with the rest of the plan largely focused on the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. The first action is to create an “integrated camera & surveillance program” involving 12 surveillance cameras in each of 20 hotspots throughout the city.
That makes for right around 240 new surveillance cameras spread throughout the city. Compare the above map of citywide hotspots with the below map of 2016 shootings and you see that the proposed hotspot neighborhoods are largely the same as where gun violence is taking place.
But digging deeper shows the inherent challenge surveillance cameras face in terms of their deterrent capabilities. Many of the neighborhood hotspots are quite large with thousands of households. 240 cameras sounds like a lot, but spreading them out throughout the city makes the odds relatively low of any one camera seeing any one crime (especially true for relatively rare crimes like gun violence).
Research clearly shows that cameras can be a powerful deterrent, but only if employed properly. A March 2015 study of crime camera usage in Newark, NJ is our best resource for understanding what is needed to maximize the return on this investment. The study’s findings can be summarized as supporting “the hypothesis that the integration of CCTV with proactive police activity generates a crime control benefit greater than what research suggests is achievable via “stand-alone” camera deployment, particularly in the case of street-level crime.”
In other words, cameras won’t do much unless they’re accompanied by directed patrol working specifically in conjunction with the individuals monitoring the cameras. If cameras are solely used to help solve cameras after the fact or potential crimes go into the Calls for Service queue rather than directly to officers then the potential effectiveness will be muted.
That’s where the city’s second proposed action could assist: “Develop Centralized Command Center”. The city’s proposal calls for the creation of a central office designed to “monitor feeds from the City cameras throughout each target area and integrate feeds from private camera installations. It will also integrate data streams from social media dashboards, license plate reader technology, and police activity through the 911 dispatch system.”
As I’ve previously noted, research shows that live-monitoring of crime cameras is often a fruitless task. Seeing crime as it happens is difficult considering the vastness of the city and the relatively few live-monitored cameras per neighborhood. Some of the research I looked at in that article showed:
- Surveillance operator activity in two Scottish cities led to one arrest per 967 hours of monitoring.
- A London surveillance monitoring unit provided police with crime footage 8 times over the course of a year.
- In one case, 592 hours of general surveillance monitoring led to only 888 documented surveillance targets (1.5 targets per hour) where the operator observed an individual or group for more than one minute.
- Another case found operator-generated surveillance occurring once every four hours across four surveillance systems in Britain.
That said, a central command center seems to be a prerequisite for matching crime camera monitoring with effective deterrent patrols, and I’m all for the city investing in the back end aspects of technologies that might make them more effective.
Ultimately, the limiting factor with all of these proposals will be NOPD’s ability to direct enough effective proactive patrols to add deterrent value given the department’s continuing manpower constraints. The fact is that NOPD lost roughly 26 percent of its manpower from the end of 2010 through the end of 2014 and has only grown by about 30 officers in the last two years.
Manpower has been the major factor in changing crime patterns in New Orleans over the last few years, and manpower will determine whether these new technologies can be effective. Crime cameras will only be effective if NOPD can direct officers specifically to crimes as they are occurring.
To that end, the most important steps the city can take with respect to public safety may be some of the steps highlighted by the third proposed action: “Redeploy & Equip Patrols for Optimal Public Safety.” That action largely focuses on patrols in the French Quarter, but reducing false alarms and increasing the online reporting capability are very positive steps that can only help to make patrol more efficient.
Finally, let’s talk for a little bit about the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. I’m not really equipped to discuss the proposed effectiveness of counterterrorism measures so I’ll skip any commentary on that. What I will say is that any anti-crime measures taken in the French Quarter in general and specifically on Bourbon Street are likely to have limited impact because crime in those areas is generally relatively low.
The below table shows 2016 Calls for Service that were for Uniform Crime Report Part I crimes. The first column shows the citywide total, the second shows the total on Bourbon Street, the third in the entire French Quarter, and the last two columns show the percent of each crime on Bourbon and in the French Quarter respectively.
If anti-crime measures directed at the French Quarter are successful then they’re most likely to effect relatively low level UCR Part I crimes such as pickpockets and purse snatching. Indeed 84 percent of Bourbon Street crime last year and 70 percent of French Quarter crime were either pickpocket, theft or shoplifting incidents. Reducing property crimes and simple robberies in the French Quarter is a noble idea though it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of violent crimes are occurring elsewhere in the city.
Crime, and specifically violent crime, is pretty low given the sheer quantity of people in the French Quarter every year. That’s why Tulane geographer Richard Campanella said of Bourbon Street “when one divides the all-too-high number of crimes by the astronomical number of total pedestrians in this space, Bourbon’s busiest blocks paradoxically transform from an apparently dangerous place to a relatively safe one.”
Obviously last November’s shooting on Bourbon Street that left 1 dead and 9 nonfatally wounded was a horrible tragedy just as was 2014’s deadly shooting on Bourbon. In addition, if there are steps we can take to proactively avoid an awful terrorist attack I’m all for them, but as the below graph shows our efforts to reduce violent crime in New Orleans should be focused outside of the Quarter.
Cameras and a command center are a good start, but I see them as the dessert rather than the main course with respect to citywide crime and gun violence reduction. Technology can be helpful, but efforts to grow NOPD and improve the department’s patrol efficiency are the key to the safety and security of New Orleanians throughout the city.