Thursday, March 12, 2015
Automobile Theft in the U.S.: Making Public Places Safer -- Video Surveillance
Making Public Spaces Safer
The 1950s and 1960s in the United States marked a period of concern over growing poverty and social inequality. The War on Poverty sparked the building of large urban renewal projects that, in turn, initiated a lively debate lasting to this day over the relationship between human behavior and the built environment. The question among those interested in crime prevention was and still is whether good urban design can reduce crime, including car theft. Activist Jane Jacobs argued in her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities, that successful city neighborhoods, through their construction of spaces, encouraged ordinary citizens to be the first line of defense against crime.31 C. Ray Jeffery turned the concept into a multidisciplinary approach to crime deterrence in his Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (1971), later popularized by Oscar Newman in his books Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design (1972) and Design Guidelines for Creating Defensible Space (1976).32 Critics complaining of “environmental determinism” forced a refinement of the ideas so that current iterations are more cognizant of site specific and social factors.33 In the wake of these heated discussions, organizations committed to implementing these design concepts, such as the United States Designing Out Crime Association, have emerged, as well as efforts to document the assertions as fact or fallacy. From these lively conversations, it is possible to gain some insight into the relationship between environmental design and auto theft.
What we have learned so far is that it is sometimes difficult to isolate the specific elements that directly affect auto theft because what is important is how these elements are arranged together to create the total event. Nor is it easy to draw conclusions based on statistical analysis given the rigid requirements of the processes.34 Nonetheless, the following seem to make a difference: lighting, surveillance, landscaping that does not obscure the view of crimes in commission, and the presence of security guards or police.35 In addition, people need to be aware of where they park. As studies show, parking a car in a domestic garage at night is safer than parking in a driveway, which, in turn, is safer than parking on the street.36 But not everyone has a choice.
Streetscapes, Parking Lots and Structures
Parking lots and garages initially emerged in the American city as a way to ease congestion and then later as a developmental strategy to offset commercial growth in outlying areas. As geographer John A. Jakle and historian Keith A. Sculle note in Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture, the parking garage marked a transition from parking as a privilege to parking as a necessity.37 And while safety had become an issue by the 1970s, auto theft was not widely discussed. One of the early design elements to gain attention with respect to crime was lighting, yet even here the focus was on personal assaults and property stolen from cars.38 In a 1979 evaluation of eight street lighting systems in the US, only one location (New Orleans) examined the outcome on vehicle theft, and they found no measurable effect.39
The problem is that while it may seem obvious that lighting would reduce crime and auto theft in particular, in fact, the evidence is mixed. Experts disagree that more lighting leads to less crime or safer streets. One large, long-term study found that: “better street lighting had had no little or effect on crime. . . . On the other hand, they did find that the improved street lighting was warmly welcomed by the public, and that it provided a measure of reassurance to some people . . . ”40 In other words, improved lighting reduces fear. However, another study found something different: “improved street lighting led to significant reductions in crime [since] lighting increases community pride and confidence and strengthens informal social control . . . ”41 That is, it encourages informal surveillance or vigilance among residents. In fact, there are both positive and negative consequences of improved street lighting. While better lighting might bring people out in the street at night, it can and does help criminals see what they are doing and scope out their exit strategy. In addition, harsh lighting creates shadows that can hide criminal activity. Clearly, numerous variables affect the relationship between lighting and crime:
The effects of improved street lighting are likely to vary in different conditions. In particular, they are likely to be greater if the existing lighting is poor and if the improvement in lighting is considerable. They may vary according to characteristics of the area or residents, the design of the area, the design of the lighting, and the places that are illuminated. For example, improved lighting may increase community confidence only in relatively stable homogeneous communities, not in areas with a heterogeneous population mix and high residential mobility. The effects of improved lighting may also interact with other environmental improvements, such as closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras or security patrols.42
It is not that improved lighting does not deter car theft; it is that a direct link is not automatic. The ability to mitigate auto theft through lighting often requires combining it with other measures such as landscaping, and increasingly, surveillance.
Electronic surveillance had been used by the federal government and military for years, but it became more widespread in the 1960s during the war against organized crime and spread to municipalities when Congress passed Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control And Safe Street Act of 1968. The purpose of the legislation was to define the proper use of electronic surveillance. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 further allowed law enforcement to collect information for public safety. Although challenged, court rulings argued that individuals do not have a reasonable right to privacy when in a public space, nor does video surveillance of public streets violate the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.43 Thus the legal groundwork was already in place at the time of the World Trade Center bombing and Oklahoma City bombing, both of which “raised public concerns about security . . . [and] made the video surveillance industry more acceptable to the general public.”44
Two early instances of the use of public video surveillance were in Hoboken, New Jersey (1966) and Mount Vernon, New York (1971),45 but both systems were dismantled after a few years when they produced few or no arrests. The problem was that: “many of these early systems were technically and financially deficient, and lacked local public support. According to a police officer, ‘Cops weren’t thrilled with the cameras.’ Police staff often had to sit in a room to monitor the CCTV cameras, which frequently broke down.”46
But the introduction of camcorder technology in the mid-1980s and digital technology in the 1990s expanded the range and coverage of surveillance. When linked to computers, cameras equipped with sensors that filtered out unrelated information provided extremely high-resolution images that could be stored in databases. In addition, with passage of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the US Department of Justice began funding such programs, as well as the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to map and track gangs and other criminal activities. It also established regional law enforcement technology centers that could, among other things, provide technical assistance in the use of surveillance technology.
Consequently, by the mid-1990s, municipalities and private companies began to erect electronic camera surveillance systems to monitor high traffic areas and parking lots where cars were left for an extended period of time, such as airport parking lots, shopping centers, schools, and commuter lots. And they learned from international experiences where such technologies were already in place. In one example, the use of CCTV in the parking lots of a British university led to a 50 percent reduction in automobile theft.47 In another instance, the installation of CCTV security in the town of King’s Lynn, Great Britain in 1988, led to a drop in the theft of cars from 52 to 0 by 1994 while theft from cars fell from 56 to 1.48 When the municipality of South Orange, New Jersey installed seven CCTV surveillance cameras in parking lots, intersections, and parks in 1994, auto theft dropped a reported 40 percent.49 San Diego used CCTV surveillance in 1993 across the heavily-used Balboa Park and realized a significant decrease in all crime, including car theft. However, police were forced to stop the surveillance after nine months because the program required public funding.50 Across the country, similar mixed results were reported. In 1993, in response to the spike in auto thefts in parking lots used by train riders into New York City, authorities installed security cameras and signage at a 210 space commuter parking lot in Freeport, New York. Yet, when the nearby municipality of Nassau attempted the same program, they found the construction and maintenance of video cameras was both expensive and labor intensive.51
Declining budgets forced communities to find ways to overcome the high cost and labor issues related to surveillance systems. The San Diego Police Department, for example, used cameras selectively and advised drivers to “park in open, well-lighted, and popular areas near your destination, preferably one in view of a security camera.”52 Alternatively, after a Hollywood, California, initiative by building owners and landlords to purchase and install CCTV cameras along a crime-ridden corridor that was monitored twenty-four hours a day by local volunteers and Los Angeles Guardian Angels led to successful results, business tenants in the nearby Northridge Shopping Center pooled their resources to install 64 CCTV cameras in 1995 and realized “an immediate and sharp reduction in auto theft and burglaries.”53 In yet another instance, the State of Florida provided the City of St. Petersburg with a $42,000 grant in 1994 to equip mobile police officers with mounted cameras and night scopes; the surveillance system reduced the amount of cars stolen (from a high of 3,000) in the high traffic ‘Gateway’ between St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay. “According to police officials, the video surveillance combined with police officers with night scopes had a major impact.”54 Because the police were mobile and the cameras were not fixed in place, the security was extremely flexible.
Criminal justice scholars Ronald V. Clarke and Patricia M. Harris cautioned that, while promising, research on the role cameras played in preventing crime was inconclusive at best.55 The effectiveness of the surveillance system was dependent on having people able to review the material in a timely manner. Consequently, when the California Research Bureau conducted a telephone survey of major city police departments to determine whether they would use CCTV video surveillance in public areas, most responded that it was not as effective as “community policing and other prevention strategies.”56 To what degree traditional policing methods were resistant to the new technologies, however, is a question that begs to be answered. Cameras have the potential to not only replace cops, but monitor their activities, as well.
A detailed study was recently undertaken by the Chula Vista, California, Police Department for the US Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services on the “Theft Of and From Autos in Parking Facilities in Chula Vista, California” that provided not only comprehensive insight into how and why cars are stolen in this border city, but also how designing for crime prevention can come together in a focused effort.57 Because the City of Chula Vista is located only10 minutes from the Mexican border, it would be expected that the city would be a haven for auto theft. And, in fact, it was. Chula Vista had a much higher auto theft rate than Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Diego and Fort Worth, among other cities. A close examination of US border cities shows high rates of auto theft across the board, but Chula Vista’s auto theft statistics at 984.0 motor vehicles thefts per 100,000 in 2001 ranked higher than McAllen, Texas (670.0), Eagle Pass, Texas (424.0), Brownsville, Texas (374.0) and El Paso, Texas (326.0), yet lower than Nogales, Arizona (1,035.0), Calexico, California (112.0) or even San Diego, California (1,589.0). In 2001, there were 1,714 auto thefts and 1,656 vehicle burglaries in Chula Vista representing 44 percent of the city’s total crime index.58
The report examined the top ten public lots from which vehicles were stolen and among their many insights found that the experiences varied for two types of lots: those near high schools and colleges, and those near swap meets, trolley stops, department stores, and movie theaters. In the first instance, the recovery rates were relatively high (67-75 percent), suggesting that the theft was for transportation or joy riding. In the second case consisting of seven of the ten lots studied, the recovery rates ranged from 37 to 50 percent, indicating that the theft was for export or dismantling for parts. In these cases, thieves targeted the lots chosen to guarantee that the owners would be parked for at least one to three hours before noticing a loss. A thief could be in Mexico in a matter of minutes.
None of the lots studied had the full arsenal of countermeasures to reduce crime: “electronically armed ticket entry system with staffed exit points for ticket recovery, cameras, active security, and perimeter control,” but when one participating mall with a parking lot that literally abuts the border installed “electronic ticketing triggered gate arms, staffed exits to collect tickets, and extensive cameras and security patrols, vehicle crimes dropped to near zero.”59
Given that the community is adjacent to the entrance into Mexico, authorities also examined whether license plate cameras at the border would stop the flow of stolen vehicles. In their interviews with border agents, they found that the primary mission was national security, not auto theft, and when the border agents attempted to stop vehicles going into Mexico, massive traffic jams resulted. Instead, the best form of intervention took place in lots where auto theft was concentrated.60
Ronald V. Clarke listed the following recommended actions in his manuscript “Thefts of and From Cars in Parking Facilities,” submitted to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing in 2002:
1. Hiring parking attendants
2. Improving surveillance at deck and lot entrances/exits
3. Hiring dedicated security patrols
4. Installing and monitoring CCTV
5. Improving lighting
6. Securing the perimeter
7. Installing entrance barriers and electronic access
8. Adopting rating systems for security features
9. Arresting and prosecuting persistent offenders.
Responses that he claimed had limited success included:
10. Conducting lock-your-car campaigns;
11. Warning offenders;
12 Promoting car alarms and other ‘bolt-on’ security devices;
13. Using decoy vehicles; and
14. Redirecting joyriders’ interest in cars.61
Given Clarke’s list of generally--though not universally--accepted recommendations and the insights derived from research, a convergence of opinion appears to be developing over the strategies that are both most effective and most acceptable for using the built environment to combat auto theft. First is to create natural surveillance, or ways to maximize public visibility. Second is to reinforce the proprietary nature of the space--let the public take “ownership” of it. Third is to clearly differentiate between public and private spaces and control access. These principles seem to be the drivers behind effective measures to prevent crime in general, and auto theft in particular, through environmental design.
A Changed People, a Transformed Environment, and a Drop in Auto Theft
From the days when garage doors were left open all night to living with the specter of CCTV cameras watching our every move in public spaces, we’ve come a long way as a society. No longer do Americans typically leave their car doors unlocked at night or keys in their cars. Our collective insecurities continue to shape the built environment in the race toward the creation of defensible spaces. But as research has shown, our homes, communities, and public areas provide imperfect, though sometimes very effective, means for thwarting auto theft.
The US will likely never reach the stage where “indiscriminate video surveillance raises the specter of the O[r]wellian State.”62 We have a Bill of Rights that limits the power of the federal government and ensures privacy, although breaches do take place. By contrast, the United Kingdom, which has no such controls, and has more video surveillance per capita than any other nation worldwide, illustrates the potential for problems. Because “it is relatively easy to find footage from parking garages, housing developments, department stores, and offices that may have commercial value,” they have a problem: “Cameras may record couples intertwined in office stock rooms, elevators or cars; women undressing in department store changing rooms; or husband and wives engaging in domestic squabbles. Such scenes are sold commercially in UK video stores.”63 Yet crime has, in fact, gone down.
In the US, which has not resorted to such extremes, crime overall, and auto theft in particular has also gone down dramatically over the last several decades. In some communities, crime prevention through environmental design has been an important addition to the arsenal against auto theft. Continued refinements in field technology, data gathering and interpretation, and use of personnel toward the creation of multi-layered approaches to preventing crime suggests that the built environment may become an increasingly vital tool in the arsenal against auto theft. However, one can’t help but wonder if this downward trend is permanent. While there are reasons for optimism, history suggests that nothing, even the incidence of crime, remains the same for long.