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Lights up, crime down: could better lighting lead to a lower crime rate?

By 2023 OPPD will have switched all of Omaha’s street lights to LEDs.
By 2023 OPPD will have switched all of Omaha’s street lights to LEDs.
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The holidays are over, but LED lights are still going up all around Omaha. The Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) has replaced approximately 20 percent of the city’s street lights with high efficiency LED lights.

Officer Ruben Soto from the Omaha Police Department said switching to brighter LEDs in older parts of the city will take time, but could help improve visibility and decrease crime.

“Some of the older parts of town may be on the darker side, because of the low light street lights that are on. That’s probably been there for quite some time. It might be a little bit dimmer,” Soto said.

By 2023 OPPD will have switched out Omaha’s street lights from high pressure sodium lights that give off a yellow light to LEDs that give off a white light.

Todd Mclochlin, Manager of Utilities and Right-of-Way Coordination at OPPD, said the LEDs put out a much whiter light which makes it easier for the eye to process.

“Although the lights have a similar amount of lumens, and illuminate the roadway at the same light level, because of the addition of color of the resolution and the clarity of what the pedestrians and the drivers can see is improved by quite a bit. It also improves the safety not only to the drivers, but security around houses as well,” Mclochlin said.

UNO Assistant Professor of Criminology Dr. Teresa Kulig said better visibility could mean a lower crime rate because more people will be aware of what is going on around them.

“We know that crime concentrates in people. There are certain offenders who re-offend repeatedly. There are certain victims that are re-victimized multiple times and there are certain places where crime events seem to be occurring,” Kulig said. “What those hot spots of crime indicate is that, that’s where it is concentrating because there are opportunities for crime there.”

In August, the Chicago Crime Lab released the results of a light study done in New York City. In several random neighborhoods researchers replaced half the street lights with LEDs and left the other half with traditional high pressure sodium lights.

“They saw that over a period of six months, the reduction of crime in the well lit area with LED lights, was reduced by about 39 percent,” Soto said. “If that’s the case, then if you have businesses, you have residential [spaces] that are out there that are using LED lights, that has the potential of reducing the crime in that area or in that business section by at least 20 percent.”

Omaha Police said the department doesn’t plan on conducting a study about how the new street lights might affect crime. Kulig said extra research could give law enforcement a better picture of where improvements need to be made to prevent future crimes.

“It’s an area where more research is needed. What does it mean when we are using more efficient light or different types of lights? Or is it just having light there in general that's effective?," Kulig said.

Mclochlin said LEDs last about four times longer than traditional high pressure sodium bulbs, so the city should see the cost of maintaining street lights drop by at least 25 percent.

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