31. Do BIDs Reduce Crime or Fear?

Some of the larger urban BIDs developed close cooperation with local police. This BID financed a joint operating headquarters facility, better quarters than police have elsewhere in the city.

While state, provincial and national laws vary somewhat, business improvement districts have fairly common missions and governance structures and have managed to increase in number and influence throughout the world. They are local economic development tools, authorized by local law, self financing, planned and governed principally by private sector people and devoted, at root, to improving business profitability and commercial property values. They have been widely applied—in large urban centers, small neighborhoods, suburban town centers and even to out-of-town commercial concentrations. Some have annual budgets of less than $50,000 and some of more than $20 million. There are more than 900 in the US and one expert expects as many as 200 to be formed in the United Kingdom (about 70 there now). Many were formed in cities where little was expected of their local governments, although the growth in European countries has been in nations where much is expected of municipalities.

The BID concept  can be traced to Adam Smith and to early American laws. The Scottish philosopher taught that cooperation as well as economic self interest were essential to successful capitalism. In the late Eighteenth Century, special assessment  districts were formed to finance, for example,  water lines serving only those charged for its existence, costs not born by general taxation

From the beginning, critics with a right wing orientation heralded BIDs  as evidence  of  of government privatization, often linking them to gated communities which grew at about the same time. Left wing critics complained that they were undemocratic entities  seeking to drive the homeless away and strengthen private sector power. A more studied view has come to see them as examples of business-government cooperation, each with its own roles and both sharing in BID successes.

Early BIDs tended to be large and focused on urban problems. In the past decade, growth has been in suburbs where small districts  were formed to capitalize on private sector opportunities. Large and mid size districts organized uniformed “security” services.

Do BIDs Reduce Crime?

Where there are budgets to support them, uniformed, radio equipped, usually well trained personnel are deployed as “safety” Ambassadors, relying on their presence to reassure those who need this. Downtown Dallas has more than 40 circulating 18 hours per day. Early urban BIDs suggested that they were part of the local crime fighting system, serving “as the eyes and ears of the police”.  At less than half the cost of an armed police officer, they proved to be a popular service. It certainly seemed to work. Crime declined, although crime declined as well in cities where there were no Ambassadors.

Looking back to the early days of BIDs, police contended that commercial centers were not particularly crime prone. On the other hand, as crime went down, Gallup reported increasing levels of fear of crime. Crime reports and crime research barely touches Downtowns; crime is largely associated with residential areas and the extensive research on police techniques and results can reflect this reality. Recently, Temple University released a study supporting the idea that foot patrols are effective in reducing crime in the most crime-plagued blocks, although the research did not focus on BID Ambassadors.

We have never found a study of Ambassadors as tools for reducing crime or fear. Research in Philadelphia reported crime reductions near BIDs, but did not consider other possible contributions to the improvements such as better lighting, more pedestrians, even more police. And other than the mere presence of the BID (with no indication of what services were provided), the reported improvements were not associated with Ambassadors, improved appearance, more customers or some other tool that could guide those contemplating budget priorities elsewhere. Similarly, a study of crime in Los Angeles has been used to associate crime reduction with the presence of reduced crime ignored other possible factors beyond BID presence or specific BID tools that may have contributed to crime reduction.

BIDs have been slow to adopt close circuit television as an anti-crime device. There are some examples in New York City. The Houston, TE police monitor more than 50 cameras in Downtown alone. CCTV can be installed for a fraction of the cost of the labor intensive Ambassador programs and can work effectively without the requirement of constant camera monitoring.

Do BIDs reduce crime or fear? Although large BIDs can allocate more than  $2million per year to “security” costs, and whereas there are places where some supplementary security is probably needed, there is no clear evidence to support a blanket affirmative answer. Why are such large costs supported without evidence of effectiveness? The answer probably lies more in the realm of public relations. Better to have spent some money trying than to be blamed for not trying.

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