By Rick Rojas
The New York Times
NEWARK, N.J. — The camera perched above the bus stop sends back a continuous feed from the corner of 16th Avenue and South 18th Street in Newark’s West Ward. Regular customers come and go from Max’s, a convenience store, and a man without a shirt paces aimlessly on the same slice of pavement. Anyone with a fast internet connection and a desire to watch could also see Fernando Demarzino stepping out of his cousin’s barbershop.
“My girlfriend called and told me what I had in my hand,” Demarzino said on a recent evening as he stood within the camera’s line of sight. His girlfriend had heard about official camera feeds that had recently been made available online, and she was checking out the spot she knew she was likely to find Demarzino. He had change in his hand, and she jokingly told him the image was sharp enough for her to count out three quarters. She also spotted his Jeep parked on the street.
Surveillance cameras are an inescapable fixture of the modern city. Law-enforcement agencies have deployed vast networks to guard against terrorism and combat street crime. But in Newark, the police have taken an extraordinary step that few, if any, other departments in the country have pursued: They have opened up feeds from dozens of closed-circuit cameras to the public, asking viewers to assist the force by watching over the city and reporting anything suspicious.
The Citizen Virtual Patrol, as the program is called, has been hailed by officials as a move toward transparency in a city where a mistrust of the police runs deep, rooted in long-running claims of aggressive enforcement and racial animosity. The cameras, officials said, provide a way to recruit residents as Newark tries to shake a dogged reputation for violence and crime.
“This is part of building a partnership,” said Anthony Ambrose, who, as public-safety director, oversees the city’s police and fire operations. Since the program started about a month ago, he said, 1,600 users have signed into the website, and residents have been lobbying the department to add more cameras in their neighborhoods.
But the advent of the program has provoked alarm among civil-liberties groups and privacy advocates. They argue that it opens a Pandora’s box of potentially devastating consequences for unsuspecting people and gives would-be stalkers or burglars a powerful tool for tracking their targets. They also argue that it pushes the police to rely heavily on the judgment of untrained civilians whose perception could be clouded by unconscious biases.
The newly installed cameras look out over strips of storefronts (some bustling and others seemingly dead), public-housing complexes and rows of family homes.
“It’s not just Big Brother,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “There’s an infinite number of siblings here.”
It is easy to spot the symptoms of Newark’s struggle with poverty and blight: blocks with crumbling buildings, crater-pocked roads and storefronts whose metal grates are pulled down well before sunset. Yet also visible are signs of transformation, with mushrooming development downtown and many businesses moving in. Newark is even a finalist in Amazon’s prolonged municipal pageant to find a base for its second headquarters.
The city’s reputation has been clouded by years of ranking among the nation’s most violent communities. In 2013, Newark had the third-highest homicide rate, with about 112 homicides, according to federal data, but last year, homicides fell to a historic low, with about 70 recorded.
The relationship between law enforcement and the city’s largely African-American and Latino population has been strained by long-running complaints of harsh policing tactics and racial profiling along with the memories of the deadly riots half a century ago. In 2016, the results of a lengthy federal investigation only confirmed those suspicions, finding that most of the police’s pedestrian stops were unjustified, use of force had been underreported and minorities were stopped more often than whites. The investigation led to the installation of a federal monitor and a consent decree.
Officials said the picture is improving, with fewer people registering complaints about police misbehavior. Ras J. Baraka, Newark’s mayor, said the citizen-patrol program was a significant piece of a broader effort to mend ties with residents.
The program started in April with 62 cameras placed in areas where officers are called often or locations with heavy foot traffic. Under each camera is a sign advising “This Area Is Under Video Surveillance.” More than 100 additional cameras are expected in the coming months, and eventually, police said, the video will be accessible from a smartphone app.
A police spokeswoman said the department had received several calls from residents watching the cameras, though none have led to arrests.
“We want to give residents the opportunity to look with us,” Baraka said in an interview. “It gives the community an opportunity to be engaged in police work and create a better relationship between the police and the community.”
Some critics say it could actually contribute to the problems and that the way to improve the bonds is to have more officers engage with the community and live in the city. “This is an invasive action,” said Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, a civil rights group in Newark.
So far, the program has been met with support in many parts of the city, with neighborhood-watch groups petitioning for more cameras and some residents believing it could be as effective at monitoring police officers on patrol as it could be for spotting criminal activity.
“The cops need to be watched because we all make mistakes,” Quateisha Rivers, who does kitchen prep for a meal-service company, said as she sat in a salon. She welcomed the cameras and brushed aside the concerns. “It’s designed for safety,” she said of the program. “We’re supposed to use it, not abuse it.”
Livestream “wild card”
Police agencies around the world have turned to video-monitoring technology to give them fly-on-the-wall views of their cities. In Chicago, police have established surveillance centers where officers can watch incoming feeds from some 30,000 closed-circuit cameras.
Still, criminologists and surveillance experts say research has shown that cameras have had a limited influence in deterring crime. The devices can be hugely beneficial after a crime, however, helping investigators to understand what happened and to identify suspects. In New York, surveillance video was cited as an important aid in tracking down the man later convicted of setting off a bomb in 2016 in the city.
Civil-liberties groups have challenged the use of camera networks monitored by the authorities, citing threats to privacy rights and fears that minorities will be disproportionately accused of crimes. A system monitored by the public heightens their concerns.
“The wild card here is the livestream of all this stuff,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program at New York University School of Law. “It’s definitely a kind of flash point. Every individual and every community wants to be safe. The question is: How do we get safety? When you see measures like this, you have to wonder, whose safety is being protected and whose rights are being violated?”
Officials say the cameras do not have facial-recognition technology or the ability to track specific individuals or vehicles. (The cameras were made by Panasonic, a major corporate presence in Newark.) Baraka also said the program was still in its early stages, and it might take time to figure out the pitfalls.
Still, he and other officials dismissed the privacy worries over the cameras, arguing that they are part of a modern climate in which the prying eyes of technology — whether from private security cameras, social media or cellphones — were difficult to evade. If anything, officials said, police needed to embrace technology to help fight crime.
“It’s definitely an aid to the police and detectives,” Ambrose said. “It’s just another set of eyes that’s helping us.”
The debate over the cameras has underscored the mood in some parts of Newark where residents see the increased surveillance as a trade-off they are willing to make to improve conditions.
Demarzino, 54, knows well the violence that has gripped the city: His brother, he said, was fatally shot in 1995 during a carjacking.
“That camera’s going to save a lot of lives,” he said, nodding to the one overhead. “Trust me.”
He called out to Latoya Jackson, standing on the stoop of her salon across the street. The intersection has the corner store, the barbershop, a drugstore, an old sports bar with a door and windows that had been boarded up. Jackson, a native of Newark, opened the salon in March, its logo the wavy signature she had practiced since she was in third grade.
Like many residents, she was unaware of the public access to the video. She did not know she could see, any time of the day or night, a feed showing the front of her salon.
“That’s good and bad,” Jackson said. As a business owner, “it’s free security,” she said. “But it’s not good for me as a civilian person.”