Safety cameras are a bust, say NYCHA tenants

Residents at Moore Houses say an expensive program aimed to increase safety through the use of closed circuit cameras is burning a hole in taxpayers’ pockets.

Monitors in this building at Moore Houses
A public safety program at the Moore Houses isn’t working, say residents, because NYCHA hasn’t been monitoring

But cops say residents have misconstrued the program

When residents of several public housing complexes learned three years ago that new closed circuit cameras would be installed in their lobbies and elevators, they were optimistic that safety in their buildings would greatly improve.

Three years later, however, residents of one complex say that the New York City Housing Authority has mismanaged the project and they feel no safer now than they did before the cameras were installed.

Moore Houses on East 149th St. near St. Mary’s Park was one of five local complexes that received the cameras, electronic keys and mechanical door locks as part of an initiative to take a bite out of crime, thanks to a $3.2 million allocation from City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo in 2011.

But residents contend that NYCHA has never assigned anyone to watch a bank of monitors that the cameras’  images are transmitted to, on the ground floor of one of Moore’s four residential buildings. When they have complained to housing officials that the expensive cameras are going to waste, they say the agency has told them it lacks the manpower to oversee the project.

Residents have urged NYCHA to allow tenants themselves to oversee the monitors, but housing officials have declined.

“It’s a waste of time,” said Moore Houses resident and tenant organizer Lou Torres, adding that the manager of the complex has told him NYCHA routinely deletes the footage from the cameras.

Torres once headed the 463-apartment complex’s tenant watch, but says he quit because he lacked the kind of backup properly used cameras and monitors would  help provide. Strangers regularly came demanding to be let into the buildings, leaving it up to Torres alone to deny them entry.

“I’ll get killed for not opening the door,” he said.

Residents say they are so frustrated that they are skeptical Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promise to invest $19 million for new safety measures in public housing across the city will amount to much.

When announcing his capital budget in June, the mayor called “for a comprehensive, citywide plan to reduce violent crime in NYCHA developments by increasing community engagement efforts and expanding neighborhood watch and domestic violence outreach teams” along with jobs and recreational opportunities for young people.

At a meeting of housing authority tenants and officials at a housing complex in East Harlem on June 30, however, one NYCHA official, Ray Rivera, tried to temper expectations, telling residents and advocates that “capital needs far exceed the available funding,” for needed projects across the city.

Cameras in the lobby of one of the four Moore Houses buildings are working just fine, but who's watching?
Cameras in the lobby of one of the four Moore Houses buildings are working just fine, but who’s watching?

Moore Houses resident and the secretary of its Executive Board, Cheryl Cross, said NYCHA’s inability to monitor the cameras raises doubts about its ability to carry out the mayor’s plan.

“There are no consequences because nobody’s watching them,” said Cross, adding “People are still getting robbed, people are still peeing in the elevators. Is it $19 million more in cameras that are not being monitored?”

Tenant Margaret Smith said some residents who ride the elevators “skip the floors,” by pressing the emergency button, often leaving elderly residents standing idly “when you’ve got the ambulettes waiting outside.” If there were someone watching the footage from the elevator cameras, she said, that wouldn’t happen.

Torres says the only time he sees NYCHA personnel using the office at 664 East 149th St. where the monitors are located, is when they go inside to eat lunch.

Yet according to Marc Busell, commanding officer of Police Service Area # 7 which oversees law enforcement in the area’s NYCHA complexes, the residents of Moore Houses have misunderstood the limitations of the program. The cameras installed at the Mott Haven area buildings are all part of a small-scale program, rather than the more comprehensive Viper system Busell says the housing authority can no longer afford. Unlike the small-scale program, where Busell says tenants are expected to call 411 to review tapes when a crime is committed, Viper’s guidelines call for police officers to monitor cameras 24/7.

“The volume of people we would need to monitor it would be astronomical,” said Busell, adding that only one NYCHA complex in his broad South Bronx jurisdiction has the Viper system, and that one was installed many years ago.

Only five major crimes have been committed at Moore Houses during the year to date, Busell pointed out, and a major takedown orchestrated by NYPD and the FBI in 2012 has helped make the project far safer than before. As for quality of life complaints such as tenants and visitors urinating in the elevators, the cameras “are not foolproof” he added, and said that some antisocial behavior is endemic to public housing. “We’re not going to eradicate all of these problems overnight.”

Still, some tenants say they are suspicious about what authorities may be hiding. Resident Wanda Dawson said she suspects “cops are probably watching [the cameras] for their own agenda.”

Neftali Martinez, 40, says he had come to visit his two children at Moore Houses shortly after the cameras had been installed late in 2011. When he stepped out of the elevator, Martinez said, two police officers told him he was the suspect they were looking for. When he denied it, he says, they beat him badly even after realizing he was not their man.

Although any footage the NYCHA cameras may have caught of the alleged beating has not been made available to Martinez, another closed circuit camera that is part of a far cheaper, privately funded crime prevention program with just two cameras and one working monitor, captured footage of that beating. Residents have access to that footage and are weighing action.

The story was changed to reflect that the original allocation for the closed circuit cameras and other safety equipment was $3.2 million for all five NYCHA complexes, and was again updated on August 19.

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