Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

What Use Have Police Made of Improved Street Lighting?

The best source of information on the use of improved street lighting by law enforcement is the collection of project reports submitted for the Goldstein and the Tilley Awards. Although few of these projects focused specifically on improved street lighting, many projects that have attacked disorder in deprived or rundown neighborhoods have included improved street lighting in a broad package of crime prevention measures. The packages often included both environmental improvements such as neighborhood cleanups (vandalism repair, graffiti removal, tree trimming), and efforts to improve community cohesion and function. The lighting improvements generally involved the upgrade or repair of existing lighting in particular street segments or crime hotspots.

† See www.popcenter.org for these submissions.

Projects Focused on Crime and Disorder in Deprived, Rundown Neighborhoods

Two good examples of these types of projects are the Hopwood Triangle, a finalist for the Goldstein Award in 2004,6 and the New Helvetia and River Oaks Project, a 1996 Goldstein Award winner.7

The Hopwood Triangle is a development of 91 dwellings owned by the City of Preston, in Lancashire, United Kingdom. Located close to the city center and two main arterial routes, the development had seen no recent investment and had slipped into a spiral of decline, with an increase in damaged properties, burglary, prostitution, and anti­social behavior. It was proving impossible to rent the vacated dwellings. Remaining tenants were increasingly apathetic about criminal and antisocial behavior.

The Goldstein Award submission describes a multi-agency project led by the police that was designed to deliver sustainable changes and improvements. In partnership with Preston City Council Central Housing Department, the Parks Department, the Millbank Court, and the local community, a range of responses were developed over a two-year period, including the following.

  • A Crime Prevention through Environmental Design survey that led to a plan for physical improvements throughout the development that included improved lighting
  • Identification and eviction of problem tenants
  • Targeted enforcement of offenders
  • Formation of a Residents Association and a Neighborhood Forum
  • Establishment of a "local lettings policy"
  • Formation of Neighborhood Watch
  • Operation Curb/Safer Sex Works, targeting prostitution

The project produced an overall decline in crime of 52 percent; in property damage and vandalism of 73 percent; in burglary of 28 percent; and in vehicle theft and vandalism of 80 percent. Calls to police declined by 38 percent, with a resultant cost saving to police of £82 ($150) per dwelling. In addition, many physical improvements were made to the development.

The New Helvetia and River Oaks Project, undertaken in Sacramento, California sought to rehabilitate a downtown neighborhood consisting of two adjacent public housing projects decimated by gang and narcotics problems. The population was estimated to be 40 percent juveniles, with most head of households being single women. In 1991, there were over 1,900 calls for service—about 2.5 calls per household—and over 470 reported crimes, of which 57 were assaults. Sting operations together with intensive police presence every night produced more than 140 drug arrests in a six-month period, but failed to have any significant effect on the problem. In 1992, calls for service increased again, peaking at over 2,350 for the project area. Despite these numbers, it was clear that many crimes related to drugs were never reported.

Two Neighborhood Police Officers (NPOs) were assigned to the project and given an office in the housing complex. They undertook an extraordinarily intensive and prolonged effort to bring about a reduction in the crime problem. They emphasized community involvement, heavy enforcement, reaching at-risk children, and forming the many partnerships necessary to gain access to both short-term and long-term resources. Two of the more significant accomplishments were the formation of the V Team, a program designed to strengthen the minds and bodies of community youth, and the elimination of the open-air narcotics market. During the first 40 days of the project, 70 arrests were made for major narcotics violations; by 1994 police had made more than 500 arrests. Officers seized several cars, thousands of dollars, electronic equipment, and jewelry as proceeds of drug transactions.

The improved lighting component included removing heavy growth from existing lighting and poles, repairing all broken lights, and installing additional sodium lights and light poles. A resident was then employed to report burned out lights because the housing authority employees were usually gone before dark.

By the end of 1995, robberies were down 73 percent, felony assaults were down 74 percent, and narcotic calls were down 94 percent. During the four years, all calls for service were down 64 percent—a reduction translating into 1,499 fewer calls for service in 1995 than in 1992. Also reduced were fire department calls (down 36 percent) and suspensions from the elementary school adjacent to the area (down 85 percent). By April 1994, a Sacramento Magazine survey of 1,000 members of the Sacramento Association of Realtors resulted in the area being voted "Most Improved Neighborhood." A 1995 survey of residents found improved resident satisfaction, with 80 percent no longer wishing to move from the area.

Projects Whose Main Objective Was to Improve Street Lighting

Isolated examples exist of problem-oriented policing projects more centrally focused on improved street lighting. One project of this kind, called Crime Watch Light Partners, was submitted for the Goldstein Award in 2001 by the Henrico County, Virginia, Division of Police. Involving only one street in Lakeside, populated by 142 homes, it was undertaken in response to resident requests for improved street lighting to deal with larcenies from autos. The project was led by a community officer who spent much of his time (141 hours) working out the details of paying for the street lighting. Streetlights in Henrico County are not installed by the county authorities, but by the local power company, which at the time charged homeowners $96 or $144 a year per light installed (depending on lumens). Because this charge was too high for most residents, the community officer devised a scheme whereby four neighbors would share the cost of one new light. He succeeded in getting 112 residents to sign up for 30 new streetlights, which were installed at a substantial saving. Before and after measurements taken with a light meter showed that street illumination was substantially improved, but no data were presented concerning the impact of the improved lighting on crime.

A second project, Gray Street Lights, was submitted for the Tilley Award in the United Kingdom in 2005. This project was undertaken in Workington, West Cumbria, and again was mounted to deal with nighttime thefts from parked cars. Analysis showed that Gray Street was the primary hotspot for thefts from cars in West Cumbria. The street is approximately 300 yards in length, with 90 small row houses on either side of the road and several small businesses at one end. During 2002, 27 thefts from vehicles parked in the street were reported with an estimated total loss of £5,000 (a little under $9,000). Most of these thefts occurred on weekend nights. Analysis of the problem identified poor street lighting as an important contributory cause of the thefts. Other presumed causes were the lack of private garages and off-street parking and the fact that the street was a busy pedestrian route after pub closing time.

The police established that a significant upgrading of the lights in the street would cost £14,000 (about $24,500) and coordinated a successful bid for government funds to pay for the lights. These were installed in December 2003; in 2004, only 6 thefts from cars were reported in the street, at an estimated cost of £833 (about $1,500). Clearly, this was a significant improvement from the situation in 2002, before the lights were upgraded. A survey established that residents believed the new lights had reduced crime and that they felt safer in the street.

Summing Up

Improved street lighting has rarely been the main objective of a problem-oriented policing project, but where it has, it seems to have been effective. In fact, most improvements in lighting have been made in the course of projects that aimed to rehabilitate deprived and rundown neighborhoods with serious crime and disorder problems. Because the lighting improvements were usually a relatively minor part of the project, it is impossible to know what part if any they played in the claimed reductions in crime or improvements in community satisfaction-which were often quite spectacular.