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Street Light Outages, Public Safety and Crime Attraction

Abstract

Objectives

For more than one hundred years, street lighting has been one of the most ubiquitous capital investments in public safety. Prior research on street lighting is largely limited to ecological studies of very small geographic areas, creating substantial challenges with respect to both causal identification and statistical power. We address limitations of the prior literature by studying a natural experiment created by short-term disruptions to municipal street lighting.

Methods

We leverage a natural experiment created by the differential timing of the repair of nearly 300,000 street light outages in Chicago. By conditioning on street segment fixed effects and focusing on a short window of time around the repair of a street light outage, we can credibly rule out confounding factors due to area-specific time trends as well as street segment-level correlates of crime.

Results

We find that outdoor nighttime crimes change very little on street segments affected by street light outages, but that outages cause crime to spill over to nearby street segments. Effects are largest for robberies and motor vehicle theft.

Conclusions

Despite strong environmental and social characteristics that tend to tie crime to place, we observe that street light outages are sufficiently salient to disrupt longstanding patterns. While the impact of localized street light outages can reverberate throughout a community, the findings imply that improvements in lighting can be defeated by the displacement of crime to adjacent spaces and therefore do not necessarily suggest that localized investments in municipal street lighting will yield a large public safety dividend.

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Notes

  1. Oil lamps were used to improve nighttime public safety in the Greco-Roman world at least as far back as 500 B.C. (Ellis 2007).

  2. These impacts may be further mediated by the extent to which the composition of individuals who spend time outdoors changes.

  3. Studies included in their systematic review utilize a differences-in-differences research design and, as such, have both pre- and post-intervention data and a control group which did not receive the intervention. Among the eight U.S. studies, lighting was found to be broadly effective in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Fort Worth and Kansas City and ineffective in Portland, Harrisburg, New Orleans and Indianapolis. Among the five U.K. studies, lighting was considered to be effective in Bristol, Birmingham, Dudley, and Stoke. In the fifth location (Dover), the improved lighting was confounded with other public infrastructure improvements.

  4. While Welsh and Farrington’s review refers to treatment groups as “experimental” and “control” groups, all of these studies are actually observational.

  5. Research by Domínguez and Asahi (2017) finds similar effects in Chile.

  6. Because of its central importance in interpreting empirical estimates, testing for spatial displacement has received a great deal of attention in experimental and quasi-experimental studies of hot spots policing (Sherman and Weisburd 1995; Braga and Bond 2008; Braga et al. 2014; Groff et al. 2015; Blattman et al. 2017) disorder reduction (Braga and Bond 2008; Branas et al. 2011; MacDonald et al. 2016; Branas et al. 2018), closed circuit television cameras (Waples et al. 2009; Welsh and Farrington 2009; Piza et al. 2014, 2015) and other place-based interventions (Grogger 2002; Ridgeway et al. 2019). Of course, displacement can also take the form of crime, target or tactical “switch” (Johnson et al. 2014) and can also include temporal displacement.

  7. Measuring spatial displacement is challenging for a number of reasons, chief among them that it is unclear a priori where crime might go upon being displaced. Will crime merely be pushed “around the corner” (Weisburd et al. 2006; Blattman et al. 2017) or will it migrate to some more distal area which shares one or more key characteristics with the treated area? Given the difficulty of exhaustively testing for all forms of spatial displacement, the norm in the empirical literature is to focus on adjacent areas (Guerette and Bowers 2009).

  8. The review by Guerette and Bowers (2009) finds little evidence of either spatial displacement or diffusion of benefits in most applications. However, constraints on statistical power mean that displacement is not always detectable even when it exists.

  9. Short et al. (2010) refer to this idea as a “reaction-diffusion” model of crime.

  10. In the administrative data, outages that affect 1–2 lights are called “single outages” and outages that affect more than two lights are called “multiple outages.” More granular information on the precise number of street lights out is not available.

  11. https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/311.html.

  12. Among major outages, which is where we observe crime effects, we are told by municipal officials in Chicago that light outages are almost all “completely out.” Among minor street light outages, approximately 1 in 5 complaints is for lights “going on and off.” The administrative data unfortunately does not distinguish between the two types of outages. Hence, to the degree that 20% of these minor outages provides only minimal treatment, our estimates could potentially be attenuated. Happily, we can back out the degree of attenuation under the assumption that flickering lights have no treatment effect. Assuming that 80% of the minor outages are, in fact, treated, estimates would be attenuated by a factor of \(\frac{1}{0.8}\) = 1.25. As the estimated effects are extraordinarily small, this will not substantively affect our estimates. For example, for index crimes arising from a minor light outage, the estimated treatment effect is − 0.1%. For robbery, it is 2.2%. Multiplying these estimates by 1.25, yields estimates of − 0.125% and 2.75%, respectively. These differences are substantively very small and are more than consistent with sampling error. As such, even if we make the assumption that “flickering outages” are associated with no effects, our estimates would not be substantively different.

  13. When a city employee addresses the outage, they also check all nearby street lights.

  14. At first glance, the ubiquity of outages affecting more than two street lights might seem unusual. However, it is important to note that, in Chicago, it is typically the case that a number of lights are connected to each other in a “group.” Hence, an electrical issue can disable multiple street lights on a given street segment at the same time.

  15. Approximately 4% of post-repair periods experience a new outage and, as such, are exposed to the treatment. In order to avoid introducing post-treatment bias into our models, we follow Chalfin et al. (2020) and report intention-to-treat effects which evaluate the effect of an initial outage and, as such, are if anything conservatively estimated.

  16. https://data.cityofchicago.org/Transportation/Street-Center-Lines/6imu-meau.

  17. The choice of a 50-foot buffer is common in the empirical literature that rely on the geocoding of crimes to blocks or street segments (e.g., (Ratcliffe 2012).

  18. The dataset contains two variables with a time related to the incident: the time the crime was reported and when the incident report was updated by the police. For this study we use the time when the crime was reported to the police, not the update time.

  19. See: http://aa.usno.navy.mil/faq/docs/RST_defs.php.

  20. http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php.

  21. We consider any report that takes greater than 180 days to resolve to be a data error and exclude it from the data.

  22. Results are similar when burglaries—an indoor crime with some of the characteristics of an outdoor crime—are excluded from the data.

  23. Sometimes crime counts are modeled using negative binomial regression models due to concerns about overdispersion in the data. For several reasons, we prefer Poisson regression in this context. First, tests for overdispersion do not distinguish between overdispersion and misspecification (see Berk and MacDonald (2008); Blackburn (2015)). Consequently, it is a priori unclear when overdispersion actually exists and is therefore an issue. Second, Poisson regression is first order equivalent to negative binomial regression when robust standard errors are used—as we do. Finally, negative binomial regression yields inconsistent estimates when fixed effects are used in a model (Lancaster 2000). This is not an issue for Poisson regression (Allison and Waterman 2002). As our models do include fixed effects, the Poisson regression model is a more appropriate choice.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Patricio Dominguez and Jason Lerner for their helpful feedback on a prior version of this manuscript. We are especially grateful to John MacDonald and David Weisburd and to three anonymous referees for providing particularly extensive and helpful feedback.

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Chalfin, A., Kaplan, J. & LaForest, M. Street Light Outages, Public Safety and Crime Attraction. J Quant Criminol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-021-09519-4

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Keywords

  • Street lights
  • Crime displacement
  • Place-based interventions