News & Politics

Big Brother in Coney Island


At the rough-and-tumble Carey Gardens and Unity Towers housing projects in Coney Island, the recent Supreme Court decision green-lighting a federal law allowing for the eviction of public housing tenants if a family member or guest gets caught selling or using drugs puts a choking grip on civil liberties already threatened by video cameras.

As it is, the six-square-block radius between West 20th Street and West 24th Street and from Surf to Neptune avenues resembles more a set from HBO’s prison series, Oz, than a neighborhood just blocks away from the famed Boardwalk and KeySpan Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones. Many of the single-family homes that line the streets are protected by thick, jail-like bars and resemble cell blocks, and youths that live in the area have hardened faces, and often a hustle to see them through their wonder years. That is if they don’t get shot, or become addicts or prostitutes—all of which comes with the territory.

And in the center of it all, at the corner of Mermaid and West 23rd Street, is the headquarters for the Brooklyn South Housing Police, standing like a red-brick fort in a foreign land with its flag flying high. Yet while it remains difficult for the general public to get behind the police compound walls to speak with the officers, that doesn’t mean the rank and file isn’t watching the public. They are, with the help of recently installed high-tech cameras in the public housing projects.

“Closed-circuit television is basically a police matter,” said New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) spokesperson Howard Marder, adding there are now about 3100 cameras citywide at 15 housing developments. “We collaborate with the police department. They tell us where they are installed and they do all the monitoring.”

While the cameras have generally been given a favorable response from residents, the court decision allowing evictions for drugs worries several household heads.

“You have to fight harder to live in your place,” said Tina White, a member of the Carey Gardens Tenants Association. “It’s one thing if the parents know their child is selling drugs outside, but just in case you have more kids, why do you and the others have to suffer for one child?”

Monique Harding, a 32-year-old mother who has spent her entire life in Carey Gardens, said it’s not right to kick out the entire family for one child caught with drugs. “Sometimes the parent doesn’t even know their child is selling drugs, and a majority of time the child doesn’t even live in the apartment anymore,” she said, adding that her sister was evicted over allegations against a son no longer living with her.

Marder, who refused to give numbers on how many evictions have occurred in city housing projects since the 1996 law was instituted, said NYCHA is happy with the recent court ruling. “Our policy has been zero tolerance for drug and violent criminal activity,” he said. “We applaud the Supreme Court decision. It strengthens our policy.”

Some residents do question the housing authority’s brave new world with the court’s decision hanging over their heads and the cameras, up to 118 of them, operational since last November, located in all the lobby entrances and exits, elevators, roof landings, and perimeters of the buildings, aimed directly at residents.

“Our privacy is violated,” said a youth near one of the project’s numerous basketball courts. “The safety went up, but the privacy went down.” Another youth, who called himself Biggie, noted that despite the cameras, it took police some time to respond to a recent shooting (believed to be gang related) on West 23rd Street and Surf Avenue, just outside the Carey Gardens area. Though the EMS eventually showed up, the victim died.

“The cops are haters,” Biggie said. “They come up to anyone with a hood on and harass us.” Several youth concurred with Biggie that cops search them for no other reason than that they are standing around the entrance to Carey Gardens, even though they live there.

New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said there is no constitutional guarantee of privacy that would prohibit the videotaping of people when they are in public, but the issue of cameras in public housing is complicated because of legitimate arguments both for and against their use. It is critical that there be safeguards to ensure that people who live in public housing projects are not compelled to give up their privacy at home, or when they travel to and from their home, Lieberman said, and there must be clearly defined limits on when and where cameras are used, with prior notice and discussions with tenants.

“It’s also critical there be clear limits on what information is preserved [on the tapes] and what is done with the information, including who has access and how long it is preserved,” she added.

The camera operation runs efficiently, according to cops. Nineteen of the cameras can point, tilt and zoom, and can be controlled from a so-called “viper monitoring room”—an apartment in one of the projects where 11 housing cops watch the closed-circuit digital TV around the clock. The controls also allow the point-tilt-and-zoom cameras to monitor some of the surrounding streets as well as the outside of the Ocean View Towers, a low-income private housing complex on West 24th Street. The monitoring room itself is watched via camera at the police station and has a link to NYPD Headquarters in downtown Manhattan. The cameras have netted several dozen arrests since their installation, according to housing cops.

Several officials say notice was given to residents and several meetings were held to explain how the cameras would work. They are not in the hallways or stairwells and do not reach through anybody’s window into their residences, said one official source. Cops say the footage is digital and is automatically taped over after seven days. However, when someone reports a robbery, rape, or other crime, that week’s tapes of the crime area can be viewed for possible relevant information. The tapes would be admissible as evidence in court.

“The cameras are there to help and assist us,” said another official source. “There is no decrease in staffing” or police patrols of the hallways. “The community officers [beat cops] are still out,” said the source.

And an overwhelming majority of tenants interviewed said the cameras make them feel safer, that crime is down, and that older people are not as afraid to sit on the benches outside the apartment buildings anymore.

“Wherever there’s drug dealing, there are guns, and children’s safety is much more important than privacy,” said Richard Vinson, who has lived at Unity Towers since 1977. “There used to be a lot of drug dealing and prostitutes, who would service johns between the 14th and 18th floors and after getting paid, [they] would smoke crack on the roof. The cameras stopped a lot of that,” he said.

Maxie Means, a 17-year resident at Carey Gardens, said people in his building don’t care as much about a possible curtailment of privacy, especially since the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He noted that almost all the residents were happy to see the drug dealing move away, even if it still went on nearby. “Some people are afraid that Big Brother is going to be watching us, but people are looking for safety,” he said.

As for the searching of youths hanging around the buildings, law enforcement sources say the expectation of privacy is kept and people can only be searched for weapons and not drugs. They say that the searches take place only after police see unfamiliar youths standing out in front of the building for six or seven hours.

Meanwhile residents like Carey Gardens Tenants Association president Shirley Aikens, who works summers at nearby Astro Land, choose to see the neighborhood as on the upswing, with many good and caring people. “The cameras are not invading anyone’s privacy, and I hope they always stay here,” said Aikens, adding that while the neighborhood may look like Oz to some people, it is just as scary for a black person to go through Bensonhurst or Bay Ridge.

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