High-tech surveillance cameras are going up on street poles in suburban South Jersey communities where they are being used as virtual patrols to stretch police departments.
Many have been installed quietly, netting a rash of drug dealers as well as petty criminals.
In Riverside, a blue-collar town of 9,000, the equipment was used in recent years to disband a burglary ring and a Bloods Gang affiliate known as Sex Money Murder.
Nearby, in Burlington City, the equipment captured an encounter with a vandal who had a ladder, a hammer, and a scheme to stop the incessant recording on a street corner known as a drug market. The vandal and an accomplice were arrested, undone by the real-time, zoomed-in images delivered to police headquarters before the camera sputtered.
"For overall public security, it's fantastic," Burlington City Sgt. John Fine said of the 30 cameras that were installed on street corners over the last three months. "This gives us extra eyes on the street. . . . Many times, residents tell us that things happen when we're not patrolling the area."
As the struggling city of 10,000 takes steps to remake its image and attract new business, reducing crime has become a focus, City Council President David Babula said. "It's a crucial part of what we're trying to accomplish." He is impressed, he said, with the effectiveness of the equipment so far.
Camden, known to be among the nation's most dangerous cities, led the way in South Jersey when it launched its $4.5 million "Eye in the Sky" program three years ago. It mounted at least 120 security cameras throughout the city and began employing advanced technology to increase their reach. The images are monitored by civilian crime analysts and officers at the police station, officials said, and also by officers from mobile data terminals when they are on patrol.
Atlantic City is also investing in the cameras as it struggles with public-safety issues and budget problems.
Tamer Zakhary, owner of PackeTalk L.L.C., which installed the equipment in each of the four municipalities, says the camera systems have advanced significantly since he began doing this type of work 15 years ago. "The old conventional ways of tying the cameras to poles for life is over. We have a nimble approach to public safety," he said, explaining the equipment could now be moved from one crime-infested hot spot to the next.
'A vital tool'
While vandalism of the cameras was once an issue, the cameras now are surrounded by protective casings that can withstand a lot of abuse, Zakhary said. They can also tilt, zoom, and pan a neighborhood.
Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said in an e-mailed statement that the cameras have allowed the department "to conduct virtual patrols and to identify situations and individuals involved in disorderly behavior, and quickly deploy officers to those locations to prevent crime from occurring. . . . I believe that integrating camera technology with old-fashioned community policing, which has proven to be successful here and in other communities, is something that you will see more police departments across the nation doing in the years to come."
Analytic software uses the real-time footage and crime data, Zakhary said, to predict when and where a crime may occur and allows an officer to get to the scene before that. For example, it can detect an illegal drug deal taking place based on the images of people arriving and leaving and the objects being dropped off at a specific corner. The system then alerts patrol officers to go to the scene where the activity was observed.
Calls from the public can also be analyzed so the location of a trouble spot can be pinpointed and the camera in that area can be turned and zoomed.
PackeTalk, based in Lyndhurst, has installed cameras in more than 75 municipalities throughout the state, as well as in Philadelphia, Washington, and other cities. "It's become a vital tool for any municipality," similar to police weapons and uniforms, Zakhary said, and can be customized to fit the needs of small towns.
Though critics express concerns about privacy rights, Zakhary said, the equipment is never directed into someone's window and is only focused on areas where the police have reasonable suspicions. "It's similar to cops walking a beat. . . . They are trained to look for specific elements of a crime." And it can record police behavior, he said.
Riverside Police Lt. Louis Fisher said the cameras were introduced to his small town through the federally funded Mid-Atlantic Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network. Soon, they became "a tool we cannot live without," he said.
The town started seeing an uptick in gang activity and robberies a few years ago, due to transients from Camden and Trenton coming in via the light-rail line, he said. The network lent the town three cameras, he said, and crime went down.
More than 60 people were arrested on drug charges in six months, and the Sex Money Murder gang operating in the town was shut down. A burglary ring was also disbanded.
The next year, Riverside bought a surveillance system with six cameras from PackeTalk, using drug forfeiture money, business donations, and township funds, for about $80,000. It's less sophisticated than what Camden has, Fisher said, but it has met the town's needs.
"It's been phenomenal, and it's paid for itself," said Police Chief William Eliason. "The cameras are so good, they can get actual facial portraits."
In Burlington, Sgt. Fine said the cameras had also begun to show promise. "The street corners that were known to have issues have quieted down, and people are not hanging out there," he said, referring to open-air drug dealing. It's too early to report actual numbers, he said.
The cameras can also be moved to areas where a big event is being held or to places where an investigation is underway, Fine said.
They are being used to assist patrols and also investigators.
The next step would be enlisting businesses to purchase cameras and connect to the system, Fine said. "That would give us additional eyes."