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CCTV Reclaims Public Housing Complexes in Newark

09/14/2009 -A $5 million investment in a sprawling video surveillance system by theNewark Housing Authority (NHA) has driven away drug dealers, prostitutes, and vagrants from the city's public housing complexes,reports Newark's The Star-Ledger.

Drug dealers in one housing complex had all but created a drug-dealing drive-through system the Ledger reports, until

... help came last year in the form of approximately 700 cameras that peer from the tops of roofs, poles and hallways as they keep watch 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on 10,000 city residents at 27 housing complexes.

On Riverside Villa, the scene of the drug drive-through, children now walk and play in the parking lot and the courtyard.

Cameras also have kept them away from Pennington Court on South Street, where drug dealers made open-air transactions in the large courtyard, and at Kretchmer, a high-rise development for seniors, where prostitutes turned tricks in the stairwells and crack junkies defecated in the hallways.

"I believe security starts at the home," said Keith Kinard, executive director of the housing authority, who started the security improvements in 2007. "But the more that we can build entrance ways that are safe and secure, courtyards that are safe and secure, it all of a sudden creates neighborhoods that are safe and secure."

Housing authority officials initiated the surveillance program after it was determined that it was more cost effective than employing 26 special police officers and 85 security guards, all of whom were fired. Instead, the city contracted with Winfield Security Corporationto monitor the cameras while city police officers patrol the housing complexes. 

Since the surveillance system's installation, housing officials say safety complaints have plunged from 150 to 200 a month to less than 20. Yet doubts of the surveillance system's effectiveness still plague housing officials. Civil libertarians believe the system amounts to blanket surveillance and violates tenants' right to privacy while a surveillance expert that consults for the city said there is no evidence that CCTV deters violent crime.

Kinnard says he hasn't heard one complaint from residents about privacy concerns. He has, however, heard from residents thankful that the cameras have pushed drug dealers away from their homes.

Does Kinnard believe the NHA has become Big Brother?

"If it has to do with result of lowering crime and making residents feel safe, I will wear that badge, that's how I feel," he told the Ledger.

The city plans on adding 100 to 200 more cameras at housing complexes over the next 6 months, bringing about 80 percent of housing units under perpetual watch. 

♦ Photo byCian O'Donovan/Flickr