LISC: Community Safety: Evaluating

Thursday, February 6, 2014

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Community safety is a complex issue in University City.

By Carl Vogel

Encompassing the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, the 2.4-square-mile section of the West Philadelphia neighborhood has a mix of college students, businesses and a very diverse population. About 28 percent of local residents live below the poverty line.

The area is served by a substation of the Philadelphia Police Department and is also the home to the two campus police departments. In addition, University City District, a nonprofit agency that was created to promote and advocate for this diverse section of the city, runs an Ambassadors program, which has 62 unarmed liaisons who also provide services and patrol the community.

These entities all work closely together—the police substation office was built next door to UCD for that very reason. And over the last 16 years since UCD was started, Part 1 (serious) Crime in the district is down 40 to 60 percent, beating citywide trends by a wide margin.

UCD’s community safety efforts go far beyond policing, however. The agency sponsors events, brings in investment, installs infrastructure improvements, cleans up graffiti and trash, adds green space, helps local businesses attract customers and more. Together, these activities make the community safer by promoting a critical mass of people on the streets (read an overview of the efforts here).

“The objective isn’t just to make public safety improvements, although that’s part of it,” says Seth Budick, UCD’s policy and research manager for planning and economic development. “Creating vitality with programming and events and capital projects—it all collectively creates a more livable neighborhood, a place you want to be.”

To get a handle on the impact of so many moving parts, UCD has made measuring and evaluating its work a priority. Budick explains how they do it.

Real-time results let you modify a program as it’s running. Staff from University City District and officers at the police substation, the campus police departments and other public safety agencies meet weekly to review data. “We’re constantly looking at incidents of criminal activity,” Budick says.

What they learn helps UDC allocate resources. For example, a few years ago, the team noticed that robberies were stubbornly, abnormally high near one local subway station after 7 p.m., even though ridership was down by those hours.

Based on that info, University City District installed pedestrian lighting along the corridor, worked with nearby property owners to add lighting too, and stepped up evening Ambassador patrols in the area.

“When you’re looking at a small area, the data can fluctuate a lot over time,” Budick says. “But when you see a consistent pattern, that’s really useful information.”

Don’t just measure crime. To try to capture whether UCD's variety of initiatives are making a difference, Budick’s team gathers data on everything from how lighting effects residents shopping patterns (via surveys) to the number of auto accidents on the streets (from city data).

Several times a year, for instance, UCD measures the hourly pedestrian count at 18 different locations in University City. They’ve found that from 2006 to 2012, foot traffic has more than doubled on Baltimore Avenue, the district’s main commercial street.

Establish a baseline. Hard data that shows impact can help build support from residents, local partners and funders.

Before a new public safety plan begins, take a baseline measurement like UCD did for pedestrian traffic in 2006. With that change over time, the agency could show that the underlying theory to improve Baltimore Avenue—more pedestrians means safer streets, which brings out more pedestrians and on in a virtuous circle—is working.

Not all data is created equal. It takes attention to detail to use data to evaluate the work and make decisions. Budick notes that in 2006, for instance, the Philadelphia Police Department reworked its reporting parameters for more serious crimes. And so he has to be careful when comparing data from before and after that change.

Known as a resource for smart, useful information about the community, UCD regularly shares its data about local conditions with other community groups and residents.

“We use both monthly crime numbers and long-term trends,” Budick says. “Often, if you only look within a given month, you lack context for what’s going on. But when we looked at monthly data last fall, we saw a spike in thefts of cars, so we responded to that by getting the word out with safety tips.”