Arrest that house: surveillance and location-based policing

| October 15, 2013

Police work has long been associated with catching perps and criminals. But an emerging body of work has found that crime happens in very specific places: a single house, a certain street corner or a particular park.

Several studies have shown that crimes are geographically concentrated, with some attributing up to 50 percent of crimes to just 3-5 percent of a city’s addresses and street blocks. Furthermore, these dens of iniquity tend to stay that way over time, reliably producing work for policemen year in and year out.

location-based policing

Abandoned houses can become sites for repeated crimes. From perthhdproductions.

Tom Casady, the Public Safety Director of Lincoln, Nebraska, recently crunched the numbers for crime in the city and built a highly refined map of where crimes occurred — and were most likely to occur again. He found that “81 percent of all the crime (14,149 offenses) occurred on only 5 percent of the street segments (689 segments). The top 1 percent of the street segments (138 segments) accounted for 7,148 crimes—41 percent of the total.”

This may not come as a surprise to an experienced beat cop or a junkie who knows that the place to score is at the corner of Main and Jefferson, but linking crime to places rather than people is only just becoming formalized as a method of crime prevention.

location-based policing

Crime-mapping is a key component of location-based policing. From Aude.

Based on this research, George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy developed a Cases of Place strategy to urge detectives to focus their activities on high-crime places as opposed to (or in addition to) human suspects. Cases of Places produced a checklist and a guide to help detectives approach the place with the same rigor and thoroughness that they use for human suspects.

The guide does everything from determining the crime history of the place (much in the same way a detective would pull up a suspect’s rap sheet), to advising detectives on how to look at the place as a suspect. How and by whom are the crimes committed? Is it an individual responsible for the crimes, a group of individuals, or is the place itself the primary suspect — for example, in a high-accident area, the suspect may not be one particular person smashing into one car after another, but a row of bushes blocking the view of on-coming traffic from the cross street.

location-based policing

Monitoring surveillance cameras. From Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M

The benefits of this approach, besides being strongly supported by research, is that unlike humans, places are stuck right where they are. They don’t go visit their great-aunt in the Poconos, or spend the day at the mall, or move to a different city to start a new life. The places, in a way, are marked as a site of crime and criminals are more likely to commit their crimes there than at the grocery store or a relative’s house.

In place-based crime, surveillance cameras can play key roles as reliable witnesses. The problem is, once the cameras are up, it may only be a matter of time before the people responsible for making the place a crime hub, move on to less supervised locales.


Category: Surveillance