NAACP, others decry surveillance cameras in New Rochelle

Yonkers Police has surveillance cameras in many spots Yonkers Police has surveillance cameras in many spots in the city, one of them at the corner of Elm and Oak Streets in Yonkers. (April 10, 2013) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

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New Rochelle's plan to install surveillance cameras in high crime neighborhoods has plenty of supporters, but has also raised fears the cameras will unfairly target minorities and lead to abuse by police.

The cameras -- to be installed on buildings and other structures in at least 20 locations -- won't be monitored all the time; but video will be saved, so it can be reviewed for evidence to support criminal investigations, town officials say. Live video will be viewable on computer consoles in police cars. Stored footage will be destroyed after 35 to 40 days, officials say.

On the streets of New Rochelle, the surveillance project is getting mixed reviews.

"It's like Big Brother," said Rashid Perkins, a 20-year-old auto repair worker. "And they're putting them in black neighborhoods. I don't think that's fair."

But Emily Garcia, a 32-year-old office worker who moved to New Rochelle about 10 years ago, said she likes the idea.

"There's a lot of sketchy people walking around in the downtown after dark, when people are getting out of work," Garcia said. "I think it's a good idea."

Even among leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- a group that has been vocal in opposing such projects in the past -- opinions are now mixed.

"We're very suspicious about these cameras and see them as part of a system that supports police misconduct, including the stop-and-frisk policy," said Lena Anderson, who chairs the NAACP chapter in White Plains and Greenburgh.

on the other hand, Ron Williams, who chairs the New Rochelle NAACP chapter, says he "doesn't have a problem with them."

"I don't know if we need the cameras or not but we need to clean up the streets and make them safer," he said. "We've got to get rid of the crime."

City Manager Chuck Strome said the city is hammering out a $360,000 contract with the New Jersey-based company LTW to install the cameras and equipment. Funding for the program will come from a mix of federal grant money, city funds and forfeiture dollars from the sale of vehicles and other items seized during criminal investigations, Strome said.

"Once we get a contract in hand, we expect to have the cameras installed within a month," he said.

Councilman Jared Rice said he supports the move, but has heard different opinions about it. Property owners want the cameras, he said, while some residents view surveillance as police harassment that unfairly targets predominately black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

"I've heard it from both sides on this issue," the Democrat said. "Personally, I think we need to boost our police investigatory methods, but in a way that respects constitutional rights."

City Councilman Louis Trangucci, a Republican, said he thinks the cameras will help reduce crime.

"It provides another set of eyes on the streets for the police," he said. "I think it's a good move for the city."

Trangucci said the exact locations of the cameras are still being discussed by the council, and might not be revealed.

The city has talked about installing cameras for several years, but couldn't get the money together to pay for it.

Other Westchester County cities, including Yonkers and White Plains, have had video surveillance for several years.

"We find them to be very effective," said Lt. Patrick McCormack, a spokesman for the Yonkers Police Department, which has about 40 cameras at undisclosed locations around the city. "They act as a deterrent and help with investigations."

A DOUBLE EDGED SWORD

In Yonkers, signs alert the public to the presence of cameras in neighborhoods, but the precise locations of the cameras are secret.

"We want people to have the perception that the cameras are everywhere, watching what's going on," McCormack said.

Privacy advocates say the use of surveillance video isn't effective in reducing crime, in some cases unfairly targets minority neighborhoods, and frequently gives people a "false sense of security" that authorities are watching round-the-clock.

"We certainly all want to have safe communities, but in a lot of ways surveillance cameras are a doubled-edged sword," said Daniel Berger, director of the Lower Hudson Valley chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They can be valuable in solving crimes, but they often don't often prevent crimes."

In New Rochelle, the surveillance cameras would be filling a public safety void left by several years of budget cuts and staff reductions that have thinned the ranks of the city's police department by nearly 40 positions since 2010.

Police union officials, who have been pushing the city to hire more patrol officers, have complained that the lack of beat cops has reached a "critical level" that is threatening public safety in the city of nearly 78,000 residents.

City officials dispute claims that the police force reductions have made the city more dangerous, citing recent statistics that show a slight decrease in violent crimes from 2011, continuing a 10-year downward trend.

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