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Cameras and Crime

It’s May 10th, the day Javon Jackson was shot and killed on Main Street, near UB’s South Campus. quotes Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson, presumably in response to a question about the surveillance near where the shooting occurred: “We are in the process of examining the tape to see if there is any usable information from the cameras. Of course, you’re dealing with ambient light and nighttime. The best information, of course, would be an eyewitness account.”

Such an admission makes clear that Gipson’s lobbying for the $4.4 million installment of the cameras in 2007 was badly misguided. Ambient light and nighttime, I assume, are common conditions for crime scenes, especially the armed and violent crimes for which University Heights has become notorious. If the cameras function preventatively (panopticism: if the surveilled believes himself watched, he will not misbehave), they simply do not work. If anyone was foolish enough to believe they were being watched, Gipson himself will now have convinced them otherwise. The “information” the footage might present is obviously visually problematic, and, as Gipson implies, not actively monitored. And again, if the cameras are intended as an aid to enforcement, what good is such footage?

The tragedy of Jackson’s murder makes clear in the very worst way the problems in University Heights and of the relationship of the University to the city as a whole. While I cannot claim that this was Jackson’s situation, many University students arrive to Buffalo with the promise of cheap rent and proximity to UB’s badly located two main campuses. When I moved to Buffalo to begin my master’s degree in 2007, my first apartment was on Lisbon Avenue, where Jackson lived as well, according to the Buffalo News. My landlord lived in Brooklyn, did not maintain the property, and charged an exorbitant rent when I moved out. In April 2008 I was robbed at gunpoint not a block from where today’s incident occurred.

I see a direct connection between the location of the University and its relationship to the city and the crimes that all too commonly occur there. (The Answer Lady’s blog at provides a detailed list.) The University provides very little guidance as far as off-campus housing, and its direct influence on the area around South Campus seems to be little more than the opportunity for students to export money to irresponsible landlords and to provide an image of class division with its location atop the green hill.

These are very high-level problems for which there is no simple solution; the location of South Campus maintains a social and class division and a tension as palpable as the visual separation between Crosby Hall and the Tops Plaza across Main Street. The locations that the University chose are fatally unfortunate. The location is not the problem to be solved. It is absolutely essential, in the thrust to UB2020, that the University address its situation to the surrounding community.

It is not solved by romanticizing an alumnus’ murder. How many students are the victims of violent crimes in the Heights? This is an important question, one to which the University as a research institute must address its efforts, but the University should not remain selfish to its effects. What precisely is the University’s role with its community at the bottom of the hill, and much more importantly, how will it resolve the tensions its locations commonly (if not, perhaps in the present situation) cause, perpetuate, or ignore, and the violent crimes by which these tensions manifest themselves?

Something is very wrong in the Heights. Cameras that are meant to be seen more than to see are not the solution. The University’s position atop the hill compounds the problem. The city and the University are not responsible for Javon Jackson’s murder, but they must address their impact on the concentration of crime in University Heights. It is too late; UB must, however, address its responsibility in fostering a healthy community, both in proximate neighborhoods and with Buffalo as a whole. President John B. Simpson’s assertion, coordinated with UB’s purchase of three security cameras in the Heights at $80,000, that the University “will continue to take a leadership role in improving safety and behavior in the neighborhood,” (according to the UB News Center) is simply not enough. How can UB and the Buffalo Police, no administrative strangers, contribute to a healthier Buffalo community?

Scott Ries

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