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The [Sunday] Papers

Do those creepy police cameras in the city's blue light districts actually prevent crime?

The Chicago Sun-Times asked this long overdue question in a front page story on Sunday. Unfortunately, the paper failed to answer it.

"[The] jury is still out," the paper announced.

But it would have been more accurate to say, "The reporting is not finished but we're publishing this anyway."

The story was as confusing as any I've read in a long time.

The main problem: Attempting to evaluate a controversial public policy before figuring out the most meaningful way to to do so.

I'm still not sure what this story is trying to say, but the paper seems to hang the effectiveness of 100 surveillance cameras around the city on just a few on one particular block.

"A look at crime before and after four cameras were installed on the stretch of Chicago from Harding to Homan shows the surveillance cameras can be effective, police say," writes reporter Mark Konkol. "The number of reported crimes there jumped, along with a spike in drug dealing arrests."

This explanation raises far more questions than it answers. Just for starters: If the cameras are supposed to deter crime, shouldn't the number of reported crimes fall instead of jump?

You would think so from what the head of the surveillance camera detail, Lt. Dave Blanco, is quoted saying next: "'As soon as cameras go in, crime is disrupted, especially narcotics sales. Put cameras where people are selling drugs, and narcotics selling goes away. Open-air drug sales markets are immediately affected."

(Which in itself raises a question: Do drug sales really go away, or do they just go elsewhere? Dealers aren't giving up, are they?)

Konkol tries not to buy the police line, but he doesn't take the reporting far enough to get away from the spin. "A closer look at the crime statistics, though, shows it's rather hard to tell--from corner to corner--if the cameras actually reduce crime," Konkol writes. "For instance, at Chicago and Harding, the number of calls to police reporting drug dealing and battery increased 31 percent during the six-month period after the cameras were installed."

Three blocks away, he reports, calls dropped dramatically.

So what does this mean? It sounds like crime increased in the areas with cameras and decreased elsewhere. Or is there now more reported crime where the cameras are? And reported by who? Why would cameras cause citizens to report more crime? Or does reported crime include police officers monitoring the camera feeds and swooping in to make more arrests?

If so, why is the opposite case being made in this later passage also meant to show supporting evidence for the cameras: "At 71st and Paxton, police made 27 drug arrests in the six months before a camera was installed in August. During the following six months, the number of arrests dropped to just nine."

What's missing from this story is clear: A definition of what qualifies as success. If the Sun-Times is uncomfortable coming up with its own benchmark, as newspapers often are, the least it could do is find out what measure the police department itself uses. Are the police meeting their own goals? (If they don't have any, that's a story in itself.)

Surely the police department has policy papers and research that led it to conclude that these cameras were a good strategy to use, and certainly the department has its own way of tracking effectiveness. (Again, if it doesn't, that's a story.) And finally, what about the experiences of other cities? Or does Chicago exist in a vacuum?

The Sun-Times is asking the right question. It's too bad it looks like the paper has to go back to journalism school to figure out how to answer it.

For example: The Associated Press reported a more sophisticated and understandable story almost two years ago, though it still wouldn't pass muster if it were produced by a local paper. Among the AP's findings:

"Chicago . . . is far more aggressive in using police cameras than many other major cities.

"The New York Police Department for years has used cameras in housing projects but has not used any to target street crime. Detroit, Houston and Washington, D.C., have placed cameras during big downtown events but not in high-crime neighborhoods.

"Los Angeles has been limited to a closed-circuit TV system installed last year in a large, gang-ridden park, which police said helped reduce shootings by 50 percent.

"Chicago officials say crime has plummeted within a block of each camera. Narcotics calls dropped 76 percent over the first seven months, police said. Minor crimes such as property damage were down 46 percent.

"Some residents said gang members simply moved their business to the side streets--a phenomenon experts call displacement.

"Chicago Police Assistant Deputy Superintendent Ron Huberman, who ran Operation Disruption until a recent promotion, acknowledged the effect but said police have beefed up their presence in outlying areas."

Primary Colors
The Tribune endorsed Rod Gidwitz on Sunday to be the Republican nominee for governor. The Tribune will endorse Gidwitz or whichever Republican wins the primary in the general election in fall as well, as a matter of course. So there's really no reason for the editorial board to pretend it is closely studying the issues and the candidates from here on out.

The Sun-Times endorsed Judy Baar Topinka on Sunday to be the Republican nominee for governor. What the paper will do in the fall is less predictable, especially with alleged swindler David Radler out of the fold.

Then again, much of the editorial board that didn't own up to Radler's shenanigans last time around is still there, so far as I know, including Editorial Page Editor Steve Huntley. Former Editor in Chief Michael Cooke, who spun madly (to put it kindly) when questioned about the Radler farce is back from a short stint as editor of the New York Daily News, but he's been shunted off to work on synergizing the company's suburban titles.

Q is for Quagmire
The big headline on the front page of the Tribune's Q section on Sunday: "Boy Oh Boy, Is That Hot! Brokeback Mountain's Scenes Spur Women With a Sexual Giddyup."

Recommended Reading
Carol Marin on a ghost reformed.

Blowpops and Popguns
Aren't ice cream trucks and BB-guns a regular part of the lives of children--and therefore parents? And yet, Chicago's newspaper editors think you aren't interested in the laws being passed in Springfield regulating the Good Humor Man and our little BB-gun warriors. Is it them, or is it me?

The Sun-Times buried this on Saturday, but at least they covered it. Tracy Swartz reports that a "dessert bill" that would require background checks for ice cream truck drivers passed the House and moves to the Senate. On the one hand, yes, it sounds like a good idea in terms of safety for your child. On the other hand, is the surveillance society going too far? How much of a problem is this really?

Swartz also reports that the House passed a bill outlawing BB-guns in schools. The bill was introduced by Grayslake Republican Robert Churchill in the wake of a 13-year-old being caught with a BB-gun in a Lake County school. The kid apparently brought the gun to school to defend himself against gang members.

So an easy political score for Churchill.

Certainly kids bringing BB-guns to school isn't a good idea. But should this be a state law, or merely school policy?

Meanwhile, Swartz reports that Ron Stephens, a Republican from Highland Park, opposed the measure, saying "I come from a generation where BB-guns was a part of Americana."

Character Assassination
The Tribune editorial page weighed in Sunday on the Chairman Fred Hampton Way controversy and came down squarely with a very Tribune-like perspective of a crochety old white man.

Of the hail of gunfire in which Hampton was killed, the editorial allows only that "Many called it murder." Do you, Tribune, call it murder? Or are you sticking with "police raid?"

Then the Tribune slips in a mention of an incident that occurred a few weeks prior to Hampton's killing in which two Chicago police officers were shot to death "during a gun battle with several men--at least two of them Panthers." The paper, however, not only fails to show that the Black Panthers as an organization had anything to do with the deaths of those police officers, but doesn't even try to link Hampton to the killings. Instead, it just lets the implication linger. And even if the Panthers and/or Hampton were responsible for the killings of those police officers, would that justify the police's assassination of Hampton? Wouldn't that be just the kind of vigilante justice the Panthers were espousing but the paper finds so gruesome?

Finally, is it worse to advocate violence against the police, as the Tribune says Hampton did, or for the police to commit violence that doesn't fall in the line of duty and then try to cover it up?

Black and White
On WTTW's Week in Review on Friday, Tribune sports editor Dan McGrath and Tribune political writer Rick Pearson, both white guys, said they were against the proposed Fred Hampton Way. Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who is African-American, said she was in favor of it.

"The 21-year-old cop murdered two weeks before went to my high school," McGrath explained.

"Hampton had nothing to do with them," Mitchell shot back.

McGrath is not on the Tribune's editorial board. But he may as well be.

Memo to Comcast
Your advertisement in the Tribune on Sunday that paired the headline "Time For a Sit Down" with a photo of a couple guys from The Sopranos made me think you were going to shake me down with another price increase rather than seduce me into upgrading to digital cable.

Don't forget our Tip Line: Our version of a blue-light district.


Posted on March 6, 2006

MUSIC - Holiday Hullabaloo.
POLITICS - Bank Profits Soaring.
SPORTS - Chicago vs. Michigan, 1903.

BOOKS - Dia De Los Muertos Stories.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Chicagoetry: West Town Blues.

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