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News 13 Investigates: Do cameras in high-crime areas deter criminals?

“I think the cameras do deter crime, ah, they don't stop it no more than the camera at stop lights stop people from running stop lights,” said Bell. Source: WLOS Staff

New surveillance cameras aim to cut off crime in Asheville's Housing Authority properties. But a News 13 investigation found the cameras may not be working as planned. The cameras were talked about for six months before being installed.

It was a rash of violent crimes and a killing in January that pushed the Housing Authority to act fast, but our investigation found cameras aren't a silver bullet to piercing the crime rate.

RELATED | Lawbreakers banned from some Asheville neighborhoods as a way to deter crime

"I just heard gun shots, hurry up, he's breathing, he's breathing, hurry up please," the 911 caller said in reporting the January shooting.

Emergency responders, however, couldn't save 53-year-old Johnnie Griggs, known to most in Deaverview Apartments as Uncle Harry.

Days after Grigg's death in January, surveillance cameras suddenly appeared.

“Nobody here wants the violence,” said a neighbor who didn’t want to be identified.

Violence and threats make Deaverview residents hesitant to speak out.

“They (other residents) seem to accept the drug trade. It's tolerated, and the drug trade's what's fueling all the violence and crime,” a resident said.

The apartments served as a backdrop for the city's second killing of 2017 and three of the city's 10 killings last year. A quarter of Asheville's violent crimes happen in public housing. Two months later, the cameras aim to deter crime, but are they?

“I think the cameras do deter crime, ah, they don't stop it no more than the camera at stop lights stop people from running stop lights,” Housing Authority CEO Gene Bell said.

Bell's right. Digging through crime reports of in Pisgah View and Hillcrest apartments, which have had cameras for 10 and six years, respectively, both saw aggravated assaults and aggravated assaults using firearms increase over the past two years. Gun calls at Pisgah View reached an all-time high of 45 in 2016 compared to prior years. Lt. Michael Lamb said cameras give police an advantage after the crime happens.

“The cameras are just one part of it, and they substantiate, if there is a complaint of criminal activity. But, first, we have to get those complaints of criminal activity,” said Lamb, who’s patrolled public housing for 20 years.

Lamb's hopeful the $65,000 spent at Deaverview on these watchful eyes will help open mouths. When shots rang out a month later, more people were talking.

“As officers arrived on the scene, there were different neighbors that were giving information, giving information on where the suspects may be, giving information on what the criminal activity was over,” Lamb said.

“The cameras are being pretty well accepted, even though people are concerned with a privacy issue. It has certainly quieted things down,” one neighbor said.

An ACLU evaluation of surveillance cameras' effects backs up claims that cameras don't drive down crime rates, in some cases it just moves crime around and out of the camera's view.

“I would really hope that they would not, but if people elect to go into their units and do something that they shouldn't do, that's different than impeding on our innocent residents that just want some normality,” Bell said.

In spite of the cameras, Asheville Police and Bell said conditions won't improve until residents speak up.

“The level of crime within a neighborhood, within a community is whatever is tolerated and accepted in that community,” Lamb said.

“There's an element of hopelessness. If you're, if the poverty in your family is three or four generations and you want that individual to have the same hope as someone who's had four generations of people educated or four generations of some moderate wealth, it's not the same. And we have purposely not talked about it, because we don't know what to do about it,” Bell said.

According to Bell, there's no silver bullet, but the city's new equity manager and Buncombe County's $500,000 commitment to battle poverty helps. Neighbors believe it will take more patrols and undercover officers keeping watch, not just cameras.

“There's so many people here and so many families with connections to somebody who has either been arrested or been charged with drugs or profits, directly or indirectly, from the drug trade or actually uses drugs, so they don't want the police here for those reasons, but they also don't want the violence,” a neighbor said.

Bell's taking other preventative measures, but didn't want to show his hand to the criminal element. So he didn't elaborate.

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