Saturday, October 04, 2008

Dallas police cameras focused on petty crime, public relations

I've spent quite a bit of time on this blog looking at evidence of whether surveillance cameras "work" to reduce crime - most long-term studies say they have no significant effect. But aggregate trends don't mean cameras never help, so it's useful to examine stories put out by camera proponents to see what's really going on regarding whether and how crime is actually reduced.

Tanya Eiserer at the Dallas News Crime Blog has an item about cameras assisting in the capture of four suspects after they burgled a coin operated vending machine in downtown Dallas. When officers arrested them, one of the youth turned out to be a Fort Worth murder suspect.

Eiserer quotes the department's oft-repeated but utterly undocumented claim that cameras have reduced crime by 20% in Dallas' central business district. Nothing in Dallas' aggregate crime stats supports that, but they keep saying it, probably confident that Dallas has so many problems with arrest data that their statements are impossible to verify.

One thing's for sure, if crime in the central business district really declined 20%, that means the cameras displaced a great deal of crime from the central business district into into other neighborhoods. From 2006-2007, e.g., citywide Dallas saw a 1.9% decline in property crimes, a roughly similar pattern as found in natonal trends. So a 20% reduction thanks to enforcement focused in one area would mean most of that crime was pushed into other neighborhoods, increasing their crime rate to make up the difference. Because police camera proponents at DPD have never told us which neighborhoods' crime rates increased as a result of their downtown cameras, which would be the only way to explain their data, I continue to doubt the 20% claim.

Anyway, back to the vending machine burglary. Here's Eiserer's account, which to me it does not lead to any strong conclusion supporting cameras:
Early Sunday, the cameras helped lead to the capture of Kelson Wayne Steels, 18, who was suspected of being involved in burglarizing a newspaper stand. Police quickly determined that he was wanted on a Fort Worth capital murder arrest warrant.

About 3:30 a.m., Dallas police officials monitoring the downtown surveillance cameras were notified that several people had just broken into a coin-operated newspaper machine on South Harwood. On the camera monitors, the officials spotted several suspected thieves running and trying to conceal themselves on the east side of the downtown library.

Patrol officers were told where they could find the suspects, whom they took into custody. Mr. Steels and Benny Evans, 18, were arrested on suspicion of burglary of a coin-operated machine. Another man and woman were released.

Police did not seek to file a burglary charge against Mr. Steels and instead listed him as a witness on the arrest reports for Mr. Evans. Mr. Steels has been turned over to Fort Worth police.

Details about the Fort Worth slaying were not available.
Let's review. Four teenagers break into a newspaper bin to steal the change. Police cameras spot them and the cops send patrol officers to chase them down. In this case, one of them happened to have other, more serious charges against him; another won't be charged because he's a "witness" against the first guy, and other two were cut free at the scene.

While everyone's glad a possible murderer was caught, let's not overstate the camera's role. The same thing would have happened if a witness saw them committing the crime and called it in. (Let's face it, people: Somebody breaking into a newspaper box in plain view in downtown Dallas when they've got an outstanding capital murder warrant against them isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer.)

Teenagers will, no doubt, continue to commit petty theft in downtown Dallas, and indeed three of the four thieves won't be charged. (Nobody will be charged with the break-in, Eiserer reports.) Despite the happenstance of catching an alleged murderer more or less by accident, at least in this anecdote it appears the cameras are being used to pursue comparatively small-time stuff.

Many people wanted for more serious offenses are identified when they're arrested for something minor, so it's a bit of a stretch to give cameras too much credit. This guy was caught because his acting out made it inevitable. Four teens out on a binge breaking into a newspaper bin on a public street in downtown Dallas are pretty likely to get noticed and arrested anyway.

Two of the thieves were released at the scene; for all we know they moved to another neighborhood the following night. A third won't face charges if he snitches against his compadre. (I use the term "snitch" not as a synonym for "testify," but to describe the exchange of testimony for reduced culpability in the witness' own criminal case.)

But the key point here is that the cameras didn't catch a murderer except by chance; they really caught a bunch of dumb teenagers breaking into a coin-operated newspaper bin - a crime so de minimus half the perpetrators were let go on the spot. It's better to be lucky than good, but it's also unwise to confuse the two.


Anonymous said...

Petty Crime is crime that happens to someone else. When you are the victim, alot of times, it is not so petty.

Anonymous said...

OK, one potential catch on bigger charges, no mention of recovery of the swag, and no id as to whether these really were the burglars in the box.

Hell, chief, we need more cams!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"When you are the victim, alot of times, it is not so petty."

If theft from vending machines were justification enough for the cameras, Dallas PD wouldn't feel the need to tout that they'd captured an alleged murderer.

And if cameras just push crime, petty or not, from one neighborhood to another, that doesn't help much either.

Anonymous said...

Are you implying that we should not have cameras downtown because it pushes crime to the neighborhoods? I am not sure I understand that argument.

The fact remains is, the number of cameras to deter crime will continue to grow and I think that is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize this was happening.

Anonymous said...

Well, ofcourse cameras will proliferate. The camera firms have lobbyists and the cops sure prefer to sit in an airconditioned surveillance room rather than actually go out and do anything. An occasional press release sure beats actually working for a living.

Geographic dispersal? Ofcourse!! Minnesota passed a Get Tough On Prostitutes and made the third streetwalking offense a felony with substantial mandatory prison time thus creating an area in New York City referred to as The Minnesota Strip. This was way back in the sixties. You think anything has actually changed in the interim?

Anonymous said...

Artificial Intelligence programs are being developed to interpret street camera scenes and to follow persons or vehicles of interest. Ofcourse the programs don't really work yet but grant money is flowing freely.

Anonymous said...

Abilene prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence:

March 22, 2007

The CCA found that the Abilene prosecutors INTENTIONALLY withheld exculpatory evidence with the specific intent to avoid an acquittal.
Footnote 20 of the majority opinion says:
"20. In West, 451 A.2d at 1235, the Court stated that what "is encompassed by intentional misconduct . . . is not the mere general intent to do the act but, additionally, the special intent to attain some specific end thereby." West provides two situations where retrial after a defense-requested mistrial is jeopardy-barred under Oregon v. Kennedy. See West, 451 A.2d at 1235. The second, more familiar, situation is a mistrial when the prosecution intentionally commits some erroneous act with the specific intent to provoke or goad the defendant into moving for a mistrial to avert a probable acquittal. See id. The first, less familiar, situation is a mistrial when the prosecution attempts not to get caught intentionally committing some erroneous act (e.g., not disclosing evidence) with the specific intent to avoid a probable defeat. See id. The evidence in this case supports this latter situation.Also, recall that the State claimed at the mistrial hearing that there is no evidence that it "did this to goad [the defense] into asking for a mistrial, or that [it] knew that if [the defense] found this out that it would goad them into a mistrial." (Emphasis supplied)."
The misconduct of the prosecutors was so extreme that the CCA felt it met the difficult Oregon v. Kennedy standard for double jeopardy barred reprosecution.
The Taylor County prosecutors (including now Judge Robert Harper) all justified intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence by claiming they didn't know the defendant might call for a mistrial if he found out about the withheld evidence. Even the dissenting opinions agree the prosecutors were..."wrong, wrong, wrong..." The prosecutors intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence "...not once, not twice, but three times..."
The majority opinion is at:
Click below and search Masonheimer to read the dissenting opinions:
Make sure to read the footnotes on all of these opinions.
When the Taylor County DA's Office has this attitude about withholding Brady evidence, is it possible for anyone get a fair trial in Taylor County?
Is anyone at the TDCAA paying attention?

Appeals court nixes retrial for Trent man on murder charge
By Jerry Daniel Reed /
March 22, 2007
Criticizing prosecutors' handling of evidence considered favorable to the defense, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Wednesday that to again try James Masonheimer of Trent on a murder charge would constitute double jeopardy. But Taylor County District Attorney James Eidson said the 6-3 opinion doesn't necessarily end the case. ''It's obviously a divided court, and it's going to be pursued further,'' Eidson said. The state could petition for a rehearing of the case by Texas' highest criminal court or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said. Two previous court proceedings involving Masonheimer, now in his mid-60s, ended in mistrials - the first in December 2002, a jury trial; and the second in April 2003 a no contest plea heard by a judge. In the latter case, the judge was charged with determining whether the state had presented sufficient evidence to convict the defendant. Masonheimer was accused of shooting Gilbert Sanchez, 40, of Merkel five times in June 2001. Masonheimer admitted the shooting, but maintained that he killed his daughter's former boyfriend to protect her from a man who had threatened and terrorized her, according to Reporter-News files. Then-Senior Judge Billy John Edwards ruled in the April 2003 trial that double jeopardy barred the retrial of Masonheimer, but the 11th Court of Appeals in Eastland later reversed that ruling. The Court of Criminal Appeals opinion on Wednesday reversed the Eastland court's decision. On Wednesday, Judge Barbara Hervey of the criminal appeals court wrote that the two mistrials ''were provoked primarily by the state's failure to disclose exculpatory evidence with the specific intent to avoid an acquittal at the first proceeding.'' Sanchez's possession of a substance alleged to be steroids, and two witnesses' statements were evidence that Masonheimer's lawyers contended prosecutors were late in turning over to the defense. Steroids are sometimes linked with violent and erratic behavior.

NO. PD-521-05


Hervey, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which Meyers, Price, Johnson, Keasler, and Holcomb, JJ., joined. Meyers, J., filed a concurring opinion. Keller, P.J., filed a dissenting opinion. Womack, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which Keller, P.J., joined. Cochran, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No, 3:13, I'm saying they should not have cameras downtown because they don't reduce crime and divert police resources. Every long-term study on the topic reaches the same conclusion. Evidence from real-world use fails to support claims that it's possible to achieve general crime reductions because of cameras.

The point about other neighborhoods was to debunk DPD claims to have reduced crime. The statement doesn't jibe with their overall citywide crime numbers, so for what they say to be true (crime went down 20% in the central business district), by definition it must also be true that crime went UP in other neighborhoods to explain the data.

Personally, I believe the completely unsubstantiated claim of a 20% crime reduction in the CBD is a public-relations-driven lie, and will continue to think that until somebody shows me data that substantiates DPD's claims, which don't make sense on their face.

Anonymous said...

Your right Grits. I like your no cameras campaign! No cameras in TDCJ! No cameras in TYC! No cameras in squad cars! Lets take it to the limit! After all, they don't deter crime! Your studies prove it!

I personally think that cameras deter crime and if they don't they can be crucial exculpatory evidence and incriminating evidence. I'm not saying that we should place cameras in peoples homes but I do believe that nothing beats camera footage when it comes to evidence. If they are placed in public places then I see no problems with that.

If you can't use cameras, if you don't like eye witness testimony, what do you want the police to use Grits?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:09 - Your drivel about eyewitnesses, prisons, TYC and squad cars make you sound like an idiot. The rest of your comment makes me think you might possibly have the ability to engage in a constructive conversation, but not if you just discount all research you don't like and whine instead of construct an argument. My advice to you, amigo: Study more, assume less.

What you think and what evidence proves are, obviously, two different things. If you can show me one peer reviewed longitudinal study that says cameras in public spaces "deter" crime, we can talk further, but when you go look you'll find they don't exist - they all conclude the opposite. Even camera supporters say so. Cameras have a role when used to target specific, high-value assets but there's no cost-benefit analysis supporting their use for general public surveillance.

The comment "nothing beats camera footage when it comes to evidence" just displays ignorance of how they're used on the ground. Most images aren't good enough for identification, and the devices are easily defeated by "high tech" means like hats, sunglasses or a six-cent paint ball pellet. Worse, where public surveillance footage is ubiquitous, as in the UK, cops waste many valuable hours viewing worthless tape instead of following up leads. That's not my analysis - it comes from cops who used the cameras and measured the results in Britain over many years.

It's easy to fall back on hunches and coventional wisdom on topics you know nothing about, as you've done here, but don't pretend they're superior to research-based analysis just because it's more comfortable and challenges fewer of your assumptions.

Travis said...

Just a note. According to the article the camera operators did not actually spot the crime. Al tho they did help in the capture of the alleged crooks.

"...officials monitoring the downtown surveillance cameras were *notified* that several people had just broken into a coin-operated newspaper machine..."

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point, Travis, I'd missed that tidbit. In fact, it doesn't look like they found any evidence connecting these four to breaking into the newspaper box - e.g., the coinage. Perhaps the link between cameras and crime fighting is even more tenuous than I'd suggested in this case. If you just stopped people randomly on the streets, after all, more than 10% of adult Texans have outstanding arrest warrants.

Anonymous said...

I have just read a book by a UK Police Blogger called "Inspector Gadget" (His rank is equivilent to one of your Luitenants.) He points out in his book CCTV results in INCREASED crime figures! For instance, lets say some persons leaving a bar get involved in a altercation, nothing serious just some pushing and shoving, prior to CCTV nothing more would be done. With CCTV the camera operators see it happening and report a crime to the police, police are dispatched and arrive at the scene after the event has passed, normally the persons would want nothing further to be to be done, but because the police have "evidence" of the "crime" being commited in the form of video arrests and prosecutions follow.

Anonymous said...

well, there is also a privacy concern here. in the UK, they were/are working on facial recognition software. They can scan faces in range and profile against pictures in the police database.

Here we have the police given an ability to scan in a face that belongs to someone long divided from a criminal past, that when found as a match on camera has the ability to be harassed without provocation. So, when the software is 'perfected' anyone that matches or 'hits' on the database can expect many long hours in a police interrogation room?

Anonymous said...

You asked for the numbers. The cameras were fully functional at the beginning of January in 2007. Here are the actual crime stats for CBD for Jan - Mar of 2007 compared with Jan - Mar or 2006.
40% reduction in violent crime, 22% reduction in non-violent crime and overall reduction of 24%.

Offense 2007 2006 Percentage

Murder 0 1 -100.00%
Rape 1 0 100.00%
Robbery 19 31 -38.71%
Agg Aslt 15 27 -44.44%
Total Violent 35 59 -40.68%

Burglary 19 63 -69.84%
BMV 197 213 -7.51%
Theft 141 166 -15.06%
Auto Theft 47 76 -38.16%
Total Non-violent 404 518 -22.01%

Grand Total 439 577 -23.92%

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Those are not the only numbers I asked for, 6:31. If these data are accurate, by definition crime INCREASED in other neighborhoods. Until they tell us where in the city THAT occurred, I'll continue to take these CBD numbers with a grain of salt.

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Unknown said...

Popular Mechanics had a good article on the use of Artificial Intelligence when used with video cameras. Chicago, for one, is adopting the technology.

Google "Artificial Intelligence Security Camera", or AI for Security Cameras.