Officials in Wilkes-Barre say their $3 million surveillance system was worth every penny. Then again, they didn't have to pay for it

This week's The Big Fix took on the question of crime cameras. Local governments lay out millions of dollars a year for sophisticated surveillance systems. But when it comes right down to it, do they actually keep cities safer? As David Lepeska writes:

For years, video surveillance has been seen as a potent weapon in the fight against urban crime. The Department of Homeland Security lays out millions of dollars to throw a surveillance net on our cities. Last year, it spent more than $830 million in 64 metropolitan areas as part of its Urban Area Security Initiative – up from $15 million and seven cities for the same program in 2009. This year the total is $662 million across 31 cities. Yet the question of effectiveness has haunted governments, police officials and academic researchers for decades. It should also haunt taxpayers, because camera surveillance doesn't come cheap. London's 10,000 camera system, for example, has cost more than $320 million to set up and maintain.

Officials in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., (population 41,498) say they have no doubt their $3 million camera system was worth it.

The city's crime fighting arsenal needed some sort of dramatic overhaul. In 2009, The Weekender, a local alt-weekly, profiled Wilkes-Barre's growing violent crime problem, interviewing young workers who said they were fed up and moving elsewhere. Deciding to leave "did not originate because of the violence, however, that is slowly becoming a reason," one resident told the paper. "The recent escalation has me looking for greener pastures."

That year, Wilkes-Barre's murder rate was the fourth highest in a state that includes Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In 2010, the small city saw two murders, 11 rapes, and 70 assaults.

So you can understand why crime was Mayor Tom Leighton's top priority. "When I was elected [in 2004] crime was the number one concern," he says.

But the budget was stretched thin, so Leighton looked to outside sources for support. "We went after all the federal and state funding," he says. "We went after whatever was available." And what was available was money for surveillance systems. The grants they received paid for a state-of-the-art program that includes 250 cameras, installed starting in late 2009. A team made up of police officers and civilians now monitor dozens of video feeds from all over Wilkes-Barre, 24 hours a day. 

There are no hard numbers that prove definitively that the system was worth it. But what studies can't test is the intangible sense that the cameras have made the city a little safer. Wilkes-Barre's downtown has a couple of empty buildings, which made workers nervous. Fewer eyes on the street and all that. With the cameras, employees tell Leighton they feel better about walking around at night.

Vandalism-related crimes have also gone down since the cameras were installed, and Leighton says his police officers report fewer incidents of late-night loitering in places like public parks.

The cameras also serve as virtual back-up for police officers. In one instance, officers were able to monitor a gun fight in a garage remotely. When the suspects tried to escape, police were there to arrest them. This September, when the city evacuated 28,000 residents during a flood, they were able to track the river level real-time to see which areas were being flooded and watch for residents in trouble.

Leighton says he hopes to double the size of his fleet of cameras in the near future, and he's pushing the Wilkes-Barre suburbs to install ones that can run out of the local command system, too. "We're always looking to expand," Leighton says.

Photo credit: Jason Lee/Reuters

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