Housing Authority is promising to improve security; But residents say cameras and more needed A.S.A.P.


By Aline Reynolds

The Lower East Side’s Baruch Houses has been the site of three murders in the last three years, the latest occurring just last month.

The public housing development, operated by the New York City Housing Authority, has been promised nearly $1 million to fund new security cameras for its 17 buildings, none of which currently have cameras.

But public housing residents at the East Houston St. development and at other NYCHA complexes lacking cameras fear a delay in the monitors’ installation could put more lives on the line.

“If we wait two or three years to start, that’s too far in the future,” said Baruch leader Luther Stubblefield at a town hall meeting organized by Borough President Scott Stringer at the Rutgers Houses on the Lower East Side on Thurs., April 7. “We have to have something now,” Stubblefield stressed.

Baruch’s tenants association has gathered more than 1,000 signatures petitioning for immediate attention to the safety problem.

Baruch is one of several Downtown public housing developments lacking what tenants say are proper safety measures to deter crime.

NYCHA is now promising to change that by stepping up its safety policies and creating a new security system for the development’s main entrances.

“It’s not a lack of effort on the part of the law enforcement in terms of the challenges,” NYCHA Chairperson John Rhea told the residents. “The reality is, the challenges are multi-prong, and they require more than just law enforcement to handle. They require a community-based approach, and commitment of management, law enforcement, stakeholders and resident leadership to have real, on-the-ground, smart ways of helping us all improve safety in our communities.

“We recognize there’s a whole lot we need to do to serve you, our customers, better,” he continued, “and to meet your expectations.”

NYCHA’s Safety and Security Task Force, created in late 2009, features a so-called “layered access control” program, including electronic access, direct-call intercoms, mechanical door locks and an “intelligent system” in developments’ entryways.

“An intelligent system will tell us when the door or cameras are broken or being tampered with,” said NYCHA spokesperson Zodet Negron. “With this knowledge, we can send on- or off-site staff to cure the issue.” Currently, NYCHA relies on resident complaints and periodic safety inspections to learn about broken equipment.

The existing entrance security system in NYCHA developments has several flaws, Rhea noted, namely broken intercoms and electromagnetic locks that allow for vandalism.

According to Rhea, the new system will “force unauthorized persons to defeat more than one device to get to the protected item or area” and “provide redundancy in the event that, if one device fails, the other devices continue to provide security.”

NYCHA will introduce the program at Lower East Side developments and others citywide next year.

The agency plans to allocate $30 million toward the installation of security cameras in selected developments around the city.

Patrick O’Hagan, NYCHA’s security director, is working with Brian Clarke, assistant deputy general manager of operations, on a uniform camera-operating system. The agency placed a moratorium on the camera installations in mid-2010, O’Hagan explained, because they needed extra time to assess the equipment. NYCHA officials wouldn’t say when the new round of camera installations would begin, but said the search for vendors will start in July.

Rhea’s urgency in addressing safety breaches in Housing Authority developments stems from alarming results recently revealed by a survey of more than 10,000 NYCHA households citywide.

Nearly 60 percent of residents reported a serious crime in their housing complex in the last year, according to the survey; and one-third said crime had increased in the last year.

Sixty-one percent of respondents reported they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their housing development’s quality of life, while 75 percent felt somewhat or very fearful of crime.

Even more disturbing, according to Rhea, Police Department statistics indicate a person is twice as likely to be a victim of violent crime in public housing as residents living elsewhere. Rhea deemed this “completely unacceptable.”

Several NYCHA residents at the meeting were anxious to have their questions addressed.

“When are we going to sit down and do the nuts and bolts for the cameras we’ve been waiting for, so that we can build up my Resident Watch?” said Aixa Torres, Alfred Smith Houses Tenant Association president.

Rhea assured Torres NYCHA would arrange a meeting with her later this month. Councilmember Margaret Chin has also had frequent discussions with Torres about crime reduction methods since a fatal shooting at the development last September.

Chin secured $800,000 last year for camera installation in the Rutgers, Vladeck and LaGuardia Houses. The councilmember told Rhea and the residents that she is anxious to get the ball rolling.

“We just want to make sure the developments in our district are safe,” Chin said, “and we’re really looking forward to getting it started as quickly as possible.”

Lower East Sider Valentina Jones, who grew up in LaGuardia and Rutgers Houses, said she no longer feels rapport with the cops patrolling the developments.

“The research and evidence is clearly there that people need a relationship with police officers” to help maintain safety, she said. The task force, Rhea replied, is committed to “ensuring a real relationship.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr., who spoke at the town hall meeting, stressed the importance of a close partnership between NYCHA, its residents and police in developing “smart” crime-fighting tactics in public housing.

The D.A.’s Office and C.B. 3 will co-host another town hall meeting on NYCHA security on Wed., April 20, at P.S. 20, 166 Essex St., between East Houston and Stanton Sts.

The grant, Vance explained, would “enable us to get federal dollars to work together to identify each development’s most problematic buildings, crime sites and offenders.”

Vance and his staff have also been dialoguing with public housing parents about countering gang violence in their communities.

“Our message is we want to be out in the community, telling you what we have to offer in protection, and how you can work with us to prevent crime,” he said.

The D.A.’s Office will be hosting another town hall meeting on Wed., April 20, at the Alfred E. Smith School (P.S. 1), 8 Henry St., in Chinatown.