News and Commentary

‘Citizen Virtual Patrol’ To Help Newark Police With Real-Time Surveillance

The largest city in New Jersey has launched a computerized, live streaming surveillance program intended to deter crime and build a partnership between law enforcement and the people they protect.

“They get an opportunity to look at what’s going on in their neighborhood,” said Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, who unveiled the Citizen Virtual Patrol last Thursday. “A suspicious car, individuals that are there who shouldn’t be there, a robbery that may have taken place, folks that are out on the corner selling drugs, anything of that nature.”

The public can log onto a Newark Police Department website and access real-time, high-definition video from a network of 62 surveillance cameras strategically placed at “hotspots” throughout the city. If civilians witness a crime taking place or observe questionable behavior, they can immediately act upon the activity by calling 911, where they may remain anonymous.

“Residents can do it on their desktops and iPads,” said Anthony Ambrose, Newark Public Safety Director. “October 1 they’ll be able to do it on their phones.”

Officials said plans are underway to more than double the number of locations monitored on the digital neighborhood watch system.

“This invaluable technology puts a real-time crime reporting tool in the hands of every concerned community member,” Baraka said. “It corroborates their story, helps us make an arrest, or possibly prevents something from taking place before it actually happens.”

Some local leaders called the initiative “a block watch on steroids.” The ACLU-New Jersey claims City Hall is “crowdsourcing its police force” and has called on Newark to end the program “before more people are put at risk.”

“Anyone, from the comfort of their own living room, can look at these live video feeds and an abuser could see a domestic violence victim or a stalking victim,” said Dianna Houenou, Policy Counsel for the ACLU-NJ. “If someone were to watch the video feeds and see someone stepping out of their house with suitcases, well they can bet that that person is going to be away for a couple of days and that creates a situation ripe for burglary.”

The virtual patrol program is part of an $850,000 grant from the United States Department of Justice. The cameras were reportedly donated by Panasonic, whose North American headquarters is in Newark. Signs placed around the monitored areas inform the public that they are being watched.

“We definitely can’t do it alone,” said Ambrose. “We need the residents and the city.”

A state-of-the-art police surveillance room is planned to open in January, and officials expect to expand the citywide grid of cameras to 300 by the year 2021.

Baraka maintains that the new program will compel the community “to feel empowered by engaging and helping reduce crime and violence in the neighborhood.”

During Baraka’s 2014 mayoral campaign, he made a promise to the electorate: “When I become mayor, we all become mayor.” He won with 54% of the vote. Since then, he has garnered praise for his efforts to improve relationships between law enforcement and the general public through novel concepts of community policing.

As The New York Times previously reported, Baraka “set up street teams of residents to help defuse tensions that can escalate into shooting and death,” and:

He called for residents, especially Newark’s men (“the ladies always show up,” he said), to join him in “occupying” a different block each week, trying to push out illegal activities.

“Everybody has a responsibility,” he shouted to the thousands gathered at the intersection of Market and Broad Streets for Occupy the City, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “We Are Newark.”

“The mayor has a responsibility, yes,” he said. “The police have a responsibility, yes. But so do our fathers, so do our mothers, so do our brothers. The question is, are you living up to your responsibility?”

Mayor Baraka is the son of the late Amiri Baraka, a beat poet once allied with black nationalist and Marxist-Leninist movements who accused President George W. Bush and Israel of having prior knowledge of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The mayor’s brother, Amiri Baraka Jr., serves as his chief of staff, while their sister, Dominique DiPrima, hosts a radio show in Los Angeles covering various progressive causes, including police reform.

On May 8, Mayor Baraka is up for re-election. His opponent is Newark Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins.

Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @Near_Chaos.