Report Links Chicago Crime to Streetlight Outages

Study shows crime in Chicago went up 7 percent when blocks of streetlights broken

A new study commissioned by Chicago's Department of Transportation confirms what many people have feared: crime goes up when the lights go out.

The study, which was conducted by a team of graduate students collaborating through the Data Science for Social Good fellowship, found on average crime went up 7 percent across the city when entire blocks of streetlights were not working.

And NBC 5 Investigates has learned some streetlights in the city are being purposely damaged as neighbors fear criminals are stealing material inside light poles and disabling lights to cover their tracks for future crimes.

"When the lights go off, the shooting starts," said Englewood resident Romona Burwell. "The next thing you know, there's the police."

Burwell said her block is often in the dark as a result of people tampering with light poles. She pointed out exposed wiring toward the bottom of several streetlights near her home.

"They just reach up in it and pull it down," Burwell said.

Tragedy struck one evening last November when four men were shot inside a car at the corner of 73rd and Laflin. Two of the men were killed. Burwell recalls the streetlights were out when the shootings occurred.

The Department of Transportation (CDOT) said police work to deter vandalism and that it makes repairs as quickly as possible, often installing steel banding around the light pole doors to further discourage the activity.

Concerns about streetlight outages are impacting other areas of the city, including a stretch of Bronzeville along South Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. While there is no particular evidence that shows the lights are being purposely disabled, residents there said their blocks' lights often do not work at night. And they fear the danger that may be lurking in the dark.

"We can't just assume our lights are going to be on any more," said Robin Price.

City records show neighbors have filed multiple 311 repair requests regarding streetlight outages on the section of S. King Drive since the end of 2013.

Price recorded video of what her neighborhood looks like when the lights go out. Based on the images, visibility appears to be very limited and the only lights in the area are coming from nearby homes.

While neighbors said there has been no crime incident due to the streetlight outages, they expressed concern about walking outside in the dark.

"It makes you wonder, 'why here?'' asked neighbor Sharon Heslup. "Is this happening in other places as frequently as it's happening to us?"

CDOT said the area is prone to frequent power outages. A spokesperson for ComEd could not provide details on streetlight power outages in the specific area of S. King Drive. However, the spokesperson said the frequency of outages in the entire ward has decreased per customer from 1.5 outages a year in 2011 to under one outage a year in 2013.

Still, CDOT said it responded to calls for service related to the streetlights outages and made repairs that ranged from minor single-light repairs to a full controller replacement.

The city-commissioned study compared crime report data with streetlight repair service requests submitted to "311" over the period from April 2012 to July 2013. Researchers found an increase in theft, narcotics, battery and criminal damage associated with streetlight outages that impacted entire blocks.

"We would look at the crime rate during the outage and then we would look at the crime rate in the exact same area but for periods just before and just after the outage occurred, so that way each area served as its own control and that made for a clean analysis," said Ph.D. student Zach Seeskin.

Among the neighborhoods with statistically significant changes in crime rates during street light block outages, Belmont Cragin, Irving Park and Riverdale saw the biggest increases.

"The conclusions of the study confirmed the practice we already have in place, which prioritizes the repair of full blocks of downed lights over single outages," wrote CDOT spokesperson Peter Scales.

Scales noted an average of less than one percent of the more than 327,000 streetlights on Chicago's streets and alleys are down on any given evening.

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