There has been a lot of talk about the city’s newly proposed security plan which, among other things, calls for a sizable expansion of high definition security cameras and an infrastructure from which to theoretically monitor those cameras. There has been lots of feedback on the morality of the plan and its potential impact on the city’s unique music culture.
This purpose of this post is not to discuss the plan’s morality or potential impact on the community’s lifestyles and culture. Rather this post will assume the city is planning to add cameras and look at some of the issues surrounding where they should be placed if they are going to be effective in fighting crime. If New Orleans is going to effectively employ surveillance cameras then the city will have to decide what it wants those cameras to do and focus on that. The city’s plan calls for 10 fixed and two mobile cameras in each of 20 hotspots throughout the city. That’s 240 cameras give or take.
That sounds like a lot, but in reality it’s not.
To show how small an area these cameras will cover let’s do some very back of the napkin math on those 240 cameras. First, let’s assume that each camera has a range of 300 feet (Note: this seems like a high estimate based on my perusal of online security cameras but that’s ok for the purposes of this assessment. Most cameras have a higher range in the daylight than at night, and the cameras the city ultimately purchases will almost certainly have a range of a few hundred feet).
If each camera can see 300 feet and all of the cameras are arranged in such a way so that there’s zero overlap then the cameras will cover 13.6 miles of territory. By my calculation that’s 8 percent of the 169 square miles of land that makes up the city of New Orleans. So 240 cameras could see 8 percent of New Orleans in ideal lighting conditions without physical impediments and none of the cameras overlapped. That percentage goes down as real world factors are added in.
So the key question becomes: what do we want these cameras to see? It’s a critical question when considering camera placement, because if the objective is to make each neighborhood feel good with an equal number of crime cameras spaced at random then the cameras will be largely ineffective.
This analysis splits the crime camera discussion into three buckets: fighting auto theft & burglary, fighting gun violence, and the effect of cameras outside bars.
Research shows that smart camera placement is critical to using cameras to fight crime, so deciding which crime types New Orleans wants to fight is a logical prerequisite for figuring out how to employ cameras.
Crime Cameras & Auto Theft/Burglary
New Orleans ranked 14th nationally in rate of auto theft in 2015 according to the FBI. Auto theft and burglary also fuels gun violence by leading to stolen guns and cars that are subsequently used in shootings. Using cameras to target vehicle-based crimes is smart, therefore, because it’s a frequent crime that indirectly contributes to gun violence.
Focusing camera placement on where vehicle-based crimes occur is also smart because research shows that these crimes are most susceptible to being impacted by crime cameras.
Crime camera expert Eric Piza addressed this issue in his 2012 dissertation titled “Identifying the Best Context for CCTV Camera Deployment: An Analysis of Micro-Level Features.” In it he concludes that “auto theft was the only crime to have experienced a statistically significant reduction, as well as a diffusion of crime control benefits to the surrounding area.”
If the goal is to focus on auto thefts and burglaries then the city should identify concentrations of those crimes and place cameras within those concentrations. To figure out where those concentrations might exist I developed a spreadsheet with the coordinates of all auto thefts and burglaries in 2016. I then determined the number of other auto thefts and burglaries that took place with 0.1 miles of each auto theft and burglary.
The result is the below heat map which shows higher concentrations of these crimes in red and lower concentrations in blue.
This map suggests that the outer periphery of the French Quarter and parts of the Marigny, Seventh Ward and St Roch are the most efficient locations for crime cameras focused on combatting auto theft & burglary.
There are some concentrations elsewhere in the city, but cameras placed in crime “hotspots” outside of those red areas are likely to be hit or miss in terms of their effectiveness in combatting vehicle-based crimes. The specific concentrations can be seen a little better in the below zoomed in map.
Crime Cameras & Shootings
Targeting auto thefts and burglaries with crime cameras is an indirect way of targeting gun violence, but why not target actual gun violence instead?
The below map shows all 2016 shooting incidents in New Orleans with red dots (fatal) and blue dots (nonfatal) shootings. Shootings tend to happen in just a few neighborhoods in New Orleans, but those neighborhoods tend to be large.
Filtering out just those shootings that occurred within 0.1 miles of another shooting in 2016 produces the below heat map. The hot spots for gun violence are in Central City, the Seventh Ward and St Roch (but, importantly, a different part of the Seventh Ward and St Roch than where auto thefts and burglaries occur).
Gun violence in New Orleans is geographically concentrated, but that concentration is not inherently tight enough to enable easy camera placements.
Let’s assume we wanted to focus camera placement on just those locations that saw multiple shootings last year. The below table breaks down shootings by the distance they were from another shooting. 428 of 486 shooting incidents in 2016 occurred within 0.25 miles of another shooting. Just over half occurred within 0.1 miles (about 500 feet), and 91 shooting (19 percent) incidents occurred within 0.03 miles (just over 150 feet) of another shootings.
As most cameras have limited range at night (when most shootings occur) it stands to reason that, even with perfect camera placement, the vast majority of shooting incidents will not be caught on camera.
That isn’t to say there wouldn’t be some deterrent effect from cameras with respect to gun violence, just that the likelihood of catching large quantities of shootings on video is relatively low even in the best of circumstances.
Crime Cameras & Bars
Another part of the security plan proposed by the city includes “requiring all ABOs to install and maintain security cameras that can feed into the new Command Center.” These cameras would be outward focused and in theory could see a good bit of crime.
To figure out where these cameras would be most effective I compared the city’s list of ABOs with the locations of 2017 UCR Part I Calls for Service. This shows where crime is occurring in the vicinity of bars. The below map highlights the number of 2017 UCR Part I crime incidents that have occurred within a quarter mile of an ABO.
Crime is most heavily concentrated in the French Quarter (shocker, right?). Note: this does not mean that there is a lot of crime in the French Quarter, only that the crime that does take place there is geographically squished together due to the tight confines of the quarter.
Cameras on bars in the French Quarter will logically observe a fair amount of crime, but there are a few problems with turning that logic into reality.
First, crime in the French Quarter is largely property crime with most of that being pickpocket, shoplifting and theft. These crime types may be difficult to see on camera.
Second, there may be lots of crimes in the French Quarter relative to its size, but the rate of crime in the French Quarter is likely relatively small compared to the rest of the city due to the sheer volume of people in the French Quarter each day.
Finally, Piza’s 2012 analysis found that “the micro-level analysis identified corner stores and major roads as major impediments to crime reduction via CCTV.” This is a problem for the French Quarter which is essentially entire blocks worth of corner stores.
This analysis did not attempt to provide a definitive assessment of how the city’s crime cameras should be employed. It is, however, intended to highlight many of the factors that need to be considered when deciding how best to attack the problem.
The first step the city needs to undertake is to decide what problem we want to be attacked by crime cameras.
Research suggests that car thefts are the crime most likely to be deterred by crime cameras, but their relationship with gun violence is indirect and they are not generally concentrated in the same locations as where shootings occur.
Focusing camera placement on where gun violence occurs makes logical sense, but the evidence suggests it will be difficult for cameras to directly observe more than a handful of shootings each year — though we won’t know for sure unless this is tested.
Finally, adding cameras outside bars will provide great coverage within the French Quarter though this will likely have little impact on violent crime citywide.
The most important takeaway from Piza’s research comes when he says “the systems that proved to be effective against crime were those which were frequently monitored by police and heavily incorporated into the police function.” In other words, where the cameras are placed is important, but if New Orleans wants the cameras to be effective in deterring crime then the city must have the manpower to combine the technology with proactive patrol.
Cameras can supplement, but cannot be a substitute for, NOPD manpower.