41. Small Downtown-Affordable Solutions to an Expensive Problem, the Fear of Crime

The Gallup survey reports that, while there is less crime in America, there is more fear of crime. Although most of the kind of crime tllat worries people – mugging, vandalism, and robbery – occurs in residential areas, many commercial districts are hurt because some believe that downtowns and neighborhood shopping districts are risky places to walk.

Many of the early, large, urban BIDs hired, trained and equipped corps of unarmed, uniformed, radio-equipped men and women, often called “Ambassadors,” to serve as the “eyes and ears” of the police. Although popular, they are expensive cadres, typically costing BIDs between 20 percent and 35 percent of their total annual budgets. What, if anything, can small BIDs and other organizations achieve, with their limited resources?

To influence how customers, visitors, and employees feel about a commercial area, ambassadors must be seen by pedestrians and must impress upon criminals that the district is being watched. It requires a lot of uniformed people to assure visibility virtually everywhere, nights as well as days. Are they effective? Jane Jacobs, in her landmark book, Death and Life of Creat American Cities, observed that there can never be enough police to reassure pedestrians. To produce conditions that pedestrians fmd comfortable requires the presence of lots of other pedestrians, suggesting that BIDs should invest more in attracting strong businesses that draw more walking customers. Crowds attract crowds, in part because they successfully reduce pedestrian fear.

There remain places where commerce is seriously affected by urban fear. Residents of Peoria, IL, for example, see their downtown as frightening, especially after dark.

The East Falls neighborhood commercial center in Philadelphia, with fewer than 150 commercial properties, has been plagued by both indigenous and drop-in criminals. In the process of creating a business improvement district, the organizing group found that the evening bar and restaurant business owners were upset because of vandalism, robberies and simple customer fear. The BID group agreed to plan and sponsor a network of closed circuit TV cameras in the two most troublesome locations. Where the bars and restaurants had complained of local criminals, the head of the BID organizing group said that the visible evidence of the cameras being installed had itself virtually ended the crime wave. Fear of cameras among the criminally inclined produced the desired effect. The other location, frequented by miscreants without local roots or knowledge, has produced only the expected pace of crime reduction. These drop-in criminals don’t know the area well enough to know their crimes are being monitored.

The eighteen cameras cost less than half of the annual funding for a single ambassador. They provide coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The cameras need not be monitored; the memory can be checked by police after a complaint, and the images can be transferred to the department’s records for subsequent use in tracking criminals or for use in court. One problem, the common “hoodie” apparel can obscure facial details, complicating what would otherwise be simple identification. To compensate, additional cameras have been installed to capture additional images. Signs will be installed to ensure that the lawful as well as the unlawful are aware of the camera monitoring.

Several years ago, Philadelphia voters had an opportunity to express their position on CCTV cameras in public places (virtually every place of business has had this equipment indoors for many years). The referendum was approved by almost three quarters of the voters and the installation will begin this year.

Use of cameras by BIDs as a tool for reducing fear and crime is still rare. But several small districts in New York City are using them successfully. In one, 2 I cameras are the frontline of defense against illegal dumping. In the Bronx, the HUDffhird Avenue BID installed eight sidewalk surveillance cameras in 2008 and Manhattan’s 47th Street district plans to install cameras. Another small New York BID is considering offering matching grants to expand outdoor coverage.

Small-city BIDs and other downtown organizations can mount successful programs to counter crime and fear without overwhelming their resources with a comprehensive plan which includes:

  • Improving lighting. Advocate lighting designed for pedestrians to replace the fixtures 30 plus feet in the air. Recommend halide lamps that produce white, rather than amber, illumination. The latter makes places look like dingy industrial areas. Encourage lighted shop windows after dark.
  • Diversify with night and day-oriented businesses. Work hard at getting people on the sidewalks after dark as well as during the daytime. The more pedestrians, the less fear.
  • Getting rid of signs of disorder. These include solid steel security gates. Most provide no security benefit and give the place the image of a perpetual crime scene.
  • Emphasizing friendliness. If the district has uniformed cleaners, train them to answer frequently asked questions. One BID’s uniforms carry the message: “Ask Me.” The communications strategy should focus people on downtown ‘s desirable features. Plan surveys to test the degree to which these measures improve satisfaction with the district. Use focus groups to test current attitudes and identify problems.
  • Organizing an active crime/fear committee that meets monthly with police and monitors the overall effort. One neighborhood BID always has a precinct representative in attendance at its board meetings.
  • Evaluating CCTV monitoring of public places. Closed circuit TV systems functioning in public spaces – parks and plazas as well as sidewalks – will become more common throughout the U.S.

Modern camera systems are popular with business operators, shoppers and employees. They cost little, do not require monitoring, and can be moved as circumstances require. Law enforcement officials increasingly embrace them as another useful tool. And, best of all, CCTV can fit the budgets of many small BIDs and downtown organizations.

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