Housing Authority tenants want cameras, more security


By Aline Reynolds

The New York City Housing Authority has neither the funds nor the personnel to implement all the security measures its residents want, such as monitored cameras and an enhanced Resident Watch program. Yet crime has risen by 2.8 percent in Lower Manhattan’s public housing developments over the past year.

NYCHA’s Safety and Security Task Force, created last year, is reviewing security and police issues to improve its services. The task force will soon release a report documenting NYCHA’s security problems and solutions. But under the current system, many public housing residents are afraid.

At 2:53 a.m. on Sept. 1, armed men confronted Smith Houses resident Anthony Evans, 28, in the playground facing the complex’s 46 Madison St. residence. Evans was shot in the head, torso and right arm. He was taken to Downtown Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Surveillance cameras recorded the crime but were unable to produce a clear image of the perpetrator. Residents of the housing development argue the cameras are unreliable guards against crime.

“Nobody’s monitoring those cameras, so it doesn’t make me feel any better one way or the other if the cameras are here,” said Mary Daez, a Smith Houses resident.

“If they had somebody looking at those cameras, and there was a fight escalating, then maybe they could have said, ‘Listen, there’s a fight beginning at such and such a place, send a patrol car,’ and that could have been stopped,” said Mariainez Quinonez, another resident.

Cameras indeed prove more effective when they are manned, according to Deputy Inspector Thomas Hogan, who as the commander of Police Service Area 4 is responsible for the security of 25 Housing Authority developments. A recent analysis conducted by the Police Department revealed a dramatic drop in crime after cameras were installed.

But camera protection doesn’t come cheap. The technology is expensive, Hogan said, and “paying police officers to just sit there and watch would be cost-prohibitive.”

This explains why out of NYCHA’s 334 developments, only 15 — including Lillian Wald Houses in the East Village — have cameras that are monitored 24 hours a day by the police.

“Deciding which developments got them was based on crime and cost of installation,” said Hogan of the manned cameras.

Other local developments, such as Seward Park Extension on the Lower East Side, don’t have any cameras at all. Carmen Ortra, tenants association president at Seward Park Association, who has been fighting for cameras for the past year, was told in the spring that NYCHA doesn’t have the money to install them.

“If we have cameras in the building, even if they’re not watched every second of the day, at least if something happens, someone could go back and look at the tape and see what’s going on,” said Tamara Johnson, 32, a Seward Park Extension resident.

‘No money for cameras’

Former local Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who is now a NYCHA board member, contended that cameras are only instrumental in identifying the perpetrators and don’t necessarily prevent the crimes from taking place.

“NYCHA never had money for cameras,” Lopez said. “That is, again, another dream that doesn’t have funding attached to it.”

Local elected officials, such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Councilmember Margaret Chin, secured funding for the cameras for 12 Lower Manhattan developments.

“I hope very much they’re going to do it for us,” Ortra said, noting few residents volunteer to monitor the lobbies. She planned to bring up the subject in a recent meeting with Chin.

“We’ll look at how many entrances [the development] has, how many cameras it needs, and figure out if we can get it into budget this year,” said Jake Itzkowitz, Chin’s spokesperson. So far this year, Chin has secured $800,000 for cameras for three developments — Rutgers, Vladeck and LaGuardia Houses — which are supposed to be installed between now and June 30 of next year.

“The priority for [the councilmember] is that residents in her district are safe,” Itzkowitz said. “Right now, cameras are the best way to do that.”

Councilmember Rosie Mendez and Borough President Scott Stringer have also provided funds for surveillance cameras. Mendez, however, points out that there’s competition for a limited amount of funds. This year, for example, her allocations went toward financing a handicap-accessible ramp at Lillian Wald Houses and security cameras for two of four buildings at Campos Plaza. Baruch Houses, on the other hand, put in its request for cameras too late, and so missed out on the money. Mendez also points out that some residents might take issue with surveillance cameras, feeling they violate their civil liberties, so these considerations must be taken into account, as well.

Around 20 older women and men sat in the small, stark lobby of 45 Pike St. in Rutgers Houses on a recent Friday evening. They were chatting and reading newspapers. They were without weapons or other protective gear.

But guards they were. Like others who serve on Resident Watch in NYCHA developments, most of them were there to fulfill federal community-service requirements. Under law, all NYCHA residents have to perform a minimum of eight hours of community service per month, such as Resident Watch, as a term of their lease.

The Tenant Patrol program, founded in 1968, was renamed Resident Watch this year.

NYCHA spokesperson Eric Deutsch explained, “While residents have volunteered for more than 40 years to enhance the safety and security of their communities, Resident Watch is a response to residents’ requests to improve collaboration among them, NYCHA and the N.Y.P.D., and to figure out how best to reduce crime in public housing.”

Smith Houses senior resident Rosa Ramerez, who patrols her building, said she hasn’t witnessed any major crimes during the time she has served. Criminals avoid the building because “they know we’re here,” she said.

An N.Y.P.D. officer who requested anonymity confirmed that residents sitting in groups in the lobby deter crime.

“If the residents send the message that they care about their building, someone who appears they don’t belong in the building will say, ‘Hey, these people are watching,’” the officer said.

Lourdes Leung, head of the Rutgers Houses Resident Watch, said numbers make a big difference.

“We have a big group here, so usually nothing happens,” Leung said.

Daez, who serves as the Smith Houses Resident Watch chief, organized a recognition dinner on Nov. 13 at St. James Church to encourage the program’s 100 volunteers in their efforts.

“We’re working now in conjunction with the Borough President’s Office and the politicians to try to get an [additional] stipend for the residents here, to show appreciation and hopefully get others involved,” said Daez.

However, as with the cameras, NYCHA doesn’t have the funds to cover such expenses.

“It would be asking us one more time to get money out of a tree that doesn’t give you blood,” said Lopez.

She emphasized the importance of residents participating in the program, whether they get paid or not. The more that residents monitor their own developments, the less likely crimes are to occur, she said.

“Preserving safety and security is the responsibility of NYCHA tenants, not just the police,” noted Lopez.

But Michael Steele, president of the tenants association at Rutgers Houses, pointed out that guarding buildings is potentially dangerous, and that even additional stipends are unlikely to attract many newcomers.

“Nobody wants to put their life on the line, and that’s basically what you’re doing,” Steele said.

And some tenants said they don’t feel any safer with residents on patrol.

“They’re little old ladies,” Johnson said. “If you’re at gunpoint, what’re you going to do? Sit there and try to call the cops?”

“You going to run and save somebody? No,” said Stephanie Ortiz, a former Resident Watch volunteer at Smith Houses.

The security program, Ortiz added, typically ends at 9 p.m., when the residents return to their homes, after which most of the crimes occur.

The tenant patrol volunteers at Rutgers Houses were shaken by a May 30 incident, when one resident stabbed another with a kitchen knife. The incident happened after the volunteers had finished their shift.

Vertical patrols

In 1995, NYCHA entered into a mutual agreement with the city to allocate an annual sum, currently $73 million, to provide above-baseline police services for its tenants.

“This means that NYCHA is entitled to receive an enriched level of police services compared to other landlords in the city,” explained Sheila Steinback, a NYCHA spokesperson.

Beginning at the ground floor, officers work their way up the stairwells of the projects, interrogating any loiterers they encounter along the way. Since only 72 officers are available to patrol the roughly 170 buildings in Lower Manhattan, the police focus their efforts on housing developments where crimes have recently transpired.

“We’re taught to ask three questions: ‘Do you live in the building?’ ‘Are you visiting someone in the building?’ ‘Do you have any legitimate business in the building?’” the police officer said of how they approach loiterers. If the person refuses to answer the questions, he or she could be arrested for trespassing.

But residents and advocates claim the police are intimidating and harassing residents rather than protecting them.

“Tenants don’t feel they’re receiving the special police services they pay for,” said Marquis Jenkins, a community organizer at Good Old Lower East Side, or GOLES, an East Village-based housing and preservation organization that advocates for tenants’ rights. “They’re more afraid of police services than they are of the drug dealers,” Jenkins said.

Ismael Sidibe, 23, a Seward Park Extension resident of seven years, was recently detained at his building’s entrance by police offices for trespassing.

“I told them I live upstairs,” Sidibe said. “They said they didn’t care about where I live, they just took me to the precinct.”

The police source maintained that loiterers aren’t legally required to show identification, and that the officers are only trying to do their jobs.

“The reality is, there are a lot of bad guys out there,” the source said. “There are some people that just don’t like the police.”

Community policing

In 1990, Mayor David Dinkins established a community-policing program, in which police officers were assigned to specific housing developments, enabling them to form a rapport with the residents. His successor, Rudy Giuliani, did away with the program in 1995, when NYCHA’s police services merged with the N.Y.P.D.’s in an effort to combat serious crime.

Some of NYCHA’s residents long for a return to the kind of community policing Dinkins instituted. Rutgers Houses resident Dorothea Cody said under the Dinkins program the police “knew who everyone was.”

Efforts are being made to alleviate the problem. At the Sept. 30 Smith Houses Tenant Association meeting, state Senator Daniel Squadron asserted that, though the N.Y.P.D. can’t revert back to community policing, those tight relationships can be re-established.

Police Lieutenant Steve Nusser offered his cell phone number to the residents in attendance at the T.A. meeting.

“We have to work together,” Nusser told the residents.

“We need as much information as possible from you,” he continued. “You’re the people that live here. Everything people tell us, we appreciate it and we’re going to act on it. If we don’t get that information, it makes our job a lot harder.”