Many communities across the country are responding to the national financial crisis by cutting back or eliminating crime prevention programs and services, which in the long run may jeopardize public safety and contribute to an increase in crime.
Some communities have identified cutting off street lights as one method to save money, reports Dennis Cauchon in a recent USA TODAY story. His story states that, “Once viewed as helpful safety measures, the lights are increasingly seen by some public officials and researchers as an environmental issue, creating light pollution and burning excess energy.” One city is turning off 40 percent of its street lights and putting another 20 percent on timers that turn the lights off from midnight to 5:30 a.m. The goal of the lighting changes is to reduce lighting costs by $400,000 per year. Another small town is turning off one-third of its 625 street lights to save $47.000.
Think of the cost to the small town, which aims to save money by cutting off street lights, if the removal of highway and security lighting contributes to the death of a police officer from either a traffic accident or an assault. The personal costs to the family of the dead officer, the insurance and death benefit costs to the city and federal government, and the training costs for the new officer to replace the lost officer far outweigh the savings accrued from turning off street lights. What other crime costs and unintended consequences could be associated with turning off street lights?
The study, Improved Street Lighting and Crime Prevention: A Systematic Review, by Farrington and Welsh, which was published by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, found that 13 street lighting studies from the United States and the United Kingdom showed that improved street lighting was linked to a significant 21 percent decrease in crime in the experimental areas compared with comparable control areas. The authors of the study suggest that street lighting may decrease crime by increasing community pride and informal social control rather than just increasing surveillance and deterrence.
Street lights not only promote public safety they also support commerce after dark. The first city to systematically install street lights for public safety purposes was Paris in 1669. The installation of the street lighting system in Paris was so significant that King Louis XIV had a coin to commemorate it. The motto of the coin was Urbis Securitas Et Nitor or Safety and Security of Paris, making it the first public safety challenge coin.
The installation of street lights in Paris not only made the streets safer but they helped to create a new nighttime commerce. Will turning off street lights in cities in 2009 have a negative impact on local commerce? More information about the implementation of street lighting in Paris and its impact on the vitality and commerce of Paris can be found in the book the Essence of Style, by Joan DeJean.