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Photo: Courtesy of Detroit Public Lighting Authority

Detroit, beginning in the 1970s, became the most violent and crime-ridden city in the United States. For decades, the Motor City had the dubious distinction of the highest crime rates in the nation, including murders.

Many of the crimes were committed in darkness. Detroit’s street lights fell into disrepair, vandals broke the bulbs, thieves stole the copper wiring and funds to make the repairs dried up. Three years ago, an estimated 40 percent of the total street lights in Michigan’s largest city were out, especially in the tougher neighborhoods on the outskirts.

But last month, the city heralded a milestone: a massive 65,000-light LED replacement project is now complete. Intersections, major streets and even alleyways are now lit, using major funds from an independent authority’s borrowing. At the same time, over the course of the project, crime has started to fall. Whether the two are a continuing trend – or whether they are related at all – has yet to be seen. But crime studies appear to show a correlation – and the city itself appears hopeful.

“For the first time in a generation, Detroiters can step outside at night anywhere in their city and have an expectation of a street lit to the national standard,” said Mayor Mike Duggan, at a ceremony on Dec. 15. “They also can have the expectation that if a light goes out, it will be replaced within five days.”

LIGHTS UP…

The city, chronically strapped for cash, moved to create a separate agency to implement an overhaul of the lighting infrastructure. The city council approved the Public Lighting Authority’s articles of incorporation in February 2013. Final long-term fixed-rate financing of $185 million was completed in June 2014 (the bonds are currently being paid off by $12.5 million from the city’s utility user taxes).

Detroit started its upgrades in the darkest neighborhoods, on the far eastern and western sides of the city. The final stretch of lights replaced by the end of 2016 were in the city’s downtown, which had the least problem with both lighting and crime.

The LEDs are considered a long-term fix. The new lights are brighter and more efficient. But perhaps more importantly, they are also wired with aluminum. The older generation of lights were wired with copper, which had become a lucrative source for thieves in Detroit. Lights are now connected so that if one goes out, others around it stay on. And a maintenance program pledges to replace outages within five days.

CRIME DOWN…

The city said the “chronic darkness” was a major driver in lawlessness in certain parts of the Motor City.

“(This) is the culmination of three years of intense work that has brought order out of chaos with the city’s street lights and has created an effective solution to an issue that has plagued the city for decades,” said Lorna Thomas, chairwoman of the Public Lighting Authority.

Indeed, crime has been falling in Detroit. The overall crime rate declined again in 2016, marking three straight years of declines. Violent crime fell 5.3 percent from 2015 (although there were seven more homicides, meaning a 2.4 percent increase in that category, as well as a 4.8 percent increase in rapes). Property crime fell 5.1 percent.

Since 2013, the trend has been toward a safer city: violent crime has decreased a total of 11. 8 percent over that time frame, and property crime has tumbled 23.3 percent, according to Detroit Police Department statistics.

…CAUSE AND EFFECT?

But whether the two are connected is unclear.

Some studies have shown that making areas of cities brighter pushes down the crime rates. One theory is that criminals are more concerned with apprehension because of increased visibility.

For instance, a British review of U.S. and UK analyses of street lighting effects on crime found that there were correlations between urban visibility and safety. The 2002 study contended that having more people out and on the street because of lights meant that crimes were less likely to be perpetrated.

“Street lighting benefits the whole neighborhood rather than particular individuals or households,” they wrote. “It is not a physical barrier to crime, it has no adverse civil liberties implications and it can increase public safety and effective use of neighborhood streets at night.”

Los Angeles implemented a “Summer Night Lights” program in eight parks in the city in 2008. The lights were kept on until midnight during summer nights, from Wednesday through Saturday. The city found that it significantly pushed down gang-related crime and homicides in the neighborhoods around the parks for the first several years of the program. The program has continued annually each summer – but in 2015, amid increased crime across LA, crime rates were only decreased in 20 of the 32 participating locations.

The National Institute of Justice points to a nuanced take on street lighting. A landmark 2008 study shows that overall crime decreased an average of 21 percent due to concerted lighting efforts over the course of 13 statistical studies. That was especially true in the course of property crimes. But the effect was not significant on violent crime over the course of those studies, contended authors Brandon Welsh and David Farrington.

The study concluded the reductions in crime were not limited to nighttime – meaning it was more than just visibility.

Like in the much-vaunted “broken window theory,” it was the infrastructure investment that seemed to instill the difference in the community of people, they concluded.

“This suggests that a theory of street lighting focusing on its role in increasing community pride and informal social control may be more plausible than a theory focusing on increased surveillance and increased deterrence,” they wrote. “Future research should be designed to test the main theories of the effects of improved street lighting more explicitly, and future lighting schemes should employ high quality evaluation designs with long-term follow-ups.”

The research connecting lights to lower crime remains unclear, said Dennis Kenney, a professor at the Department of Criminal Justice at John Jay College, in an interview with Forensic Magazine. Installing lights could be seen as an example of "problem-oriented policing" rather than "broken-window theory" he said, but any safety gains may be tied simply to the community's taking advantage of them.

"If lights go up, and citizens use public spaces because they feel safer, then the people who want to do bad things don't feel comfortable being in those areas," said Kenney. "In that sense, it's a very good thing."

But some studies have indicated that LED lights throw shadows which could allow criminals to hide, Kenney added - and even the American Medical Association recently pointed to health effects from the brighter, more-efficient lights.

Detroit thinks the lights are part of an overall rejuvenation in the Motor City, they said as they put the finishing touches on the massive project.

“For our residents, businesses, employees and the surrounding communities, Detroit’s new energy-efficient streetlights symbolize progress, safety and a tremendous sense of pride in our invigorated and revitalized city,” said Trevor Lauer, president and CEO of DTE Electric, which worked on the project.

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