First, the good news: Flash mobs be damned, the Philadelphia Police Department says crime is down across the board. From 2007 to 2010, according to a PPD report released last week, homicides in city limits dropped almost 22 percent. Illegal guns are down 17.5 percent and the number of shooting victims is down 8 percent. Part I crimes—which include homicide, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, theft and auto theft—are down 10 percent, with the biggest decrease happening between 2008 and 2009.
These improvements have come even as the PPD has fewer resources to work with. Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has cut overtime by nearly $17 million over the last three years because of budgetary issues. All the while, he’s shifted police-on-the-street resources to many problem districts focused in North and Southwest Philly, including the 12th, 14th, 15th, 18th, 19th, 22nd, 25th, 35th and 39th, which account for 65 percent of all city homicides.
Of course, Ramsey acknowledges there’s more to do. “We’ve got a lot more progress to make if we want to say we’re one of the safest cities in America,” he said at a recent press conference. He also acknowledged that many problems plaguing the city often need to be somewhat overlooked for the larger picture, calling policing “a journey that never ends.”
But that next step in the journey to the future is slightly unsettling. Because it basically involves fighting crime with cameras. A boat load of them. But don’t be too concerned if you’re not cool with the idea of being watched (or if you don’t think cameras can deter crime). The city doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to these things (read: technological advancements of any kind). Still, in spite of evidence pointing to the tenuous relationship between cameras and decreased crime, the city’s going through with it.
In the report released last week, “Making Philadelphia a Safer City: 2011 Progress Report on the Crime Fighting Strategy and the Five Year Plan,” expanding the city’s megapixel network is referred to as an overarching goal for the department, which, they say, will give detectives an easier time identifying culprits after crimes are committed. In addition to cameras being integrated into the city’s Real Time Crime Center, which is partially funded with a federal earmark, the plan will allow for more video in the city’s already gigantic digital “data warehouse”—the information of which can be sent directly to laptops and mobile devices.
Over the next five years, says Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Gaittens, who oversees Philadelphia’s camera units, “we are going to be adding some more cameras to the 14th [Germantown] and 39th [Nicetown] in addition to six around police headquarters [downtown].” He says those neighborhoods should expect at least 50 more cameras through the city’s five-year plan. The numbers added to the 80 SafeCam members (businesses that can register their cameras with the PPD) and other city agencies isn’t yet known.
Just for the record, we overwhelmingly OK’d this crime-fighting strategy in a 2006 city referendum, which created a pilot program that expanded the use of closed circuit TV feeds to police headquarters. Since then, the city has procured grants for the project—including $2 million from the Southeast Pennsylvania Regional Counter Terrorism Task Force—which has brought 500 new cameras throughout the city.
And since 2008, the number of city-owned police cameras has increased by more than 600 percent. If you count external cameras the Video Monitoring Unit is able to track, that number’s actually 2600 percent. According to Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Gaittens, who oversees Philadelphia’s camera units, those external monitoring units include 42 PennDOT cameras; 17 owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority; 566 in use by SEPTA; and 12 owned by the Streets Department. That, combined with the endless potential of SafeCam—in which businesses and organizations can opt to register their snapshots with the city—means the day could come where you better watch out where you light up that joint or, given the city’s newfound rally to deter smoking, drop that cigarette butt.
Hard numbers are rarely hammered to reports detailing the effects cameras have directly on crime. But the PPD says there was a 13 percent crime decrease in those areas that had cameras installed through the pilot program. (New results for the increased camera presence aren’t expected until January or February 2012). “There are too many variables to say how cameras have a direct impact on crime,” says Gaittens. “However, I can say we have been burning DVDs for investigators and there have been many cases where we wouldn’t have gotten a conviction had it not been for a camera.”
But too many variables isn’t good enough for some. Critics of the programs often point to the camera capital of the western world: London. With a million cameras installed along its streets and photo-equipped planes deployed over the metropolis, each citizen can be potentially photographed 300 times per day. The country as a whole has one CCTV camera installed for every 14 Britons. But an internal report by London police found fewer than one crime per year is solved using the city’s high-tech surveillance. The British Home Office found cameras generally have “little overall effect on crime levels.”
And yet, many American cities are following suit in the name of security. Philly’s got some catching up to do if it wants to be more like the 10,000-camera haven of Chicago, which this summer announced the installation of more eyes in the sky through a $650,000 federal Homeland Security grant.
Given past problems with city-commissioned cameras, 46 of which were still covered in plastic bags a year ago, this public-private partnership avoids the city having to conduct actual maintenance work using its scaled-back police resources. The idea of businesses volunteering their cameras almost makes that $13 million the city wasted in its failed partnership with Unisys for a previous camera system seem not seem so bad. And the two underground incidents over one week in September 2009 (in which suspicious peoples were seen taking photos of SEPTA’s subway system, but could not be found later on due to the Lombard-South and Snyder stations’ camera ineptitude)? Eh, just a glitch.
But given that track record, the general failings of cameras deterring or solving crimes and the ability for this whole thing to sink into the murky swamp of Big Brotherism, what’s the end goal here? That answer’s unclear, but it’s probably one of those journeys that never ends.
There are 208 police cameras in various hotspots around the city. But as of last week, 46 cameras remain nonfunctional.