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What's in a streetlight?


I was recently driving a section of the interstate (I10 as we know it here in New Orleans) and noticed streetlight after streetlight was conspicuously dark. I began noticing more streetlights out in neighborhoods, on streets, and in commonly used corridors. Had it not been for my headlights, much of what was before me would have gone unseen. I started to think about how other people interpreted these outages and what is means for the social and civic health of communities. While to some this deficit in infrastructure may not been reason for concern, it reminded me of a body of work in criminology that looks at the factors of our environment that contribute to crime and how we can reduce crime by intervening in physical spaces and making small changes. Rather than focus on those characteristics unique to the individual as a means of explaining criminal behavior, these conventional theories suggest that the built world can encourage or discourage action. From this I thought about the effect of something familiar like streetlight outages and its effect on a community’s quality of life. Because crime is a collective issue, we are constantly seeking out strategies that identify causes of crime. This week, I explore a body of work that sees opportunity as a key predictor for crime and offers physical and tangible remedies for reestablishing control and thus eliminating opportunity. I want to introduce readers to a concept that has been employed as a method for crime control in a variety of situations, including in the application of crime management in municipal and state capacities, and may be useful in addressing crime issues here at home.

The “why” behind a crime may vary based on the individual, the context, and the desired outcomes. In the effort to contain criminal behavior, society has built comprehensive, grotesquely large systems of control that attempt to both manage and reduce (see: mass incarceration). But prevention also manifests outside the scope of law enforcement and the courts. Simple and superficial actions can be taken to reduce risk and protect personal interests. Businesses and homeowners alike install cameras, fences, and lights all in the name of prevention. We build entire communities with the thought of crime in mind, offering layouts that maximize lines of sight and ensure the flow of traffic. Prevention is at the cornerstone of control but it’s one that few of us give a thorough look at. Luckily, an entire body of scholarly work has developed the topic on how environments and preventive measures are connected to the proliferation of crime.

Situational Crime Prevention (SCP) rests on the link between opportunity and action, adapted from Cesare Beccaria’s (1764) seminal work On Crimes and Punishments. Beccaria described individuals as inclined to place personal interests before all others, seeking maximum rewards with minimally incurred consequences[1][2]. This and the scholarly contributions of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian principles of behavior are the foundation of prevention techniques in SCP. Conceptualizing behavior in such a way has informed urban planners, developers, and community stakeholders to “build out” or eliminate rewards for anti-social behavior. This theoretical architecture is what supports a “rational choice” explanation for criminal behavior: that people commit crimes because the opportunity exists and the potential pleasure from success exceeds the potential pain. Because humans are rational agents, crime prevention is focused on preventative measures that reduce the likelihood that crime will look attractive. SCP introduces strategies for crime intervention, including: increasing the effort in the commission of crime, extending guardianship and security, reducing the rewards, and setting more concrete and defined rules. Formal surveillance methods, like burglar alarms, security guards, and yes, street lights, make increase the risk of crime because they raise the potential for being caught. Researchers have documented the efficacy of these assumptions, showing that crime interventions informed by a SCP framework effectively reduce crime and, in some cases, change likely offender behavior. Guerette & Bowers (2009), in their meta-analysis of SCP evaluation, showed that structural and ecological changes reduce criminal behavior [3]. Cleaning up street corners, repairing broken lights, and removing debris from public parks can all carry with it positive results. Even retailers and manufacturers have followed similar tenets to reduce theft, accidental misuse, and increase safety in things like automobiles, over-the-counter cold medicine, and baby food products[4]. Other studies have evidenced the effects of closed circuit television systems (CCTV) and improvements to street lighting in public spaces. In both instances, modest yet significant reductions in crime have been demonstrated. Street lighting has also been shown to significantly reduce opportunity for crime[5]. Here situational crime prevention remediates the conditions under which crime is not only attractive, but possible. Even the most pedestrian and common of things like a broken streetlight can evoke a feeling of neglect. It offers the impression that “anything goes” and that behavior is unregulated. Creating spaces that are safe for the community offer an environment for public gathering and eliminate opportunity for unregulated behavior.

In New Orleans, public safety concerns dominated the most recent local election cycle. Despite overall crime trends suggesting crime is down since a peak in the early 1990s[6], violent gun crimes and homicide-related deaths have increased[7]. Property crime has also trended up significantly over the last few years, going from 13,689 recorded property crimes in 2012 to 15,571 in 2016[8]. Rates are likely to be even higher for 2017 once all data has been reported. Going forward, city officials will surely look for ways to address what is seemingly the biggest civic issue. For a city actively looking for ways to reduce crime, the NOPD, policy makers, and city council may find it useful to review situational crime prevention as an applied method. Situational crime prevention techniques have been proven popular with the public for their ability to produce tangible solutions to ongoing problems. Changing the dynamic between opportunity, where risk and reward are weighed, may begin and end with something as simple as changing a streetlight.

[1] Bentham, J. (1789/1970). Introduction to the principles of morals and legislation (J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart, Eds.). London: Athlone Press.

[2] Beccaria, C. (1764). On crimes and punishments (H. Paolucci, Trans., 1963). New York: Pearson Education.

[3] Guerette, R. T., & Bowers, K. J. (2009). Assessing the extent of crime displacement and diffusion of benefits: a review of situational crime prevention evaluations*. Criminology, 47(4), 1331-1368.

[4] Clarke, R.V., & G. R. Newman. 2005. Guest eds. 2009. Crime Prevention Studies; Volume 25: Designing Out Crime from Products and Systems. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[5] Welsh, B., & Farrington, D. (2008b). Effects of improved street lighting on crime: a systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 4(13).



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