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High-Tech Security Coming to Public Housing Citywide

By Patrick Wall | April 12, 2012 8:30am
The eight 20- and 22-story buildings at the Mott Haven Houses in the South Bronx will be the first to get new high-tech security systems.
The eight 20- and 22-story buildings at the Mott Haven Houses in the South Bronx will be the first to get new high-tech security systems.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

MOTT HAVEN — More than 80 public housing developments around the city will be outfitted this year with millions of dollars worth of high-tech cameras, intercoms and locks controlled by electronic key tags.

City Council members set aside $41.7 million in discretionary funds to finance the NYC Housing Authority’s long-planned security upgrades, which took on new urgency after the agency found in a 2010 survey that more than 75 percent of public housing residents fear crime in their developments.

The new technology will be rolled out as part of a pilot project at the Mott Haven Houses in the South Bronx, and then installed at developments in all five boroughs later this year.

The future developments will include the Amsterdam Houses in Manhattan, the Coney Island Houses in Brooklyn, the Woodside Houses in Queens and the Mariner's Harbor Houses on Staten Island. NYCHA-approved contractors will install new security cameras, door access controls or both in the buildings at each development.

Residents at the Mott Haven Houses, where the security installation is already in progress, welcomed the upgrades as an overdue response to their concerns about unlocked front doors, strangers roaming in their hallways and shootings in broad daylight.

The Bronx housing project saw a 50 percent jump in crime in 2009, prompting NYCHA to target it as the first location for the changes in its grant application to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Zodet Negrón, an agency spokeswoman. The problems have continued, with four people having been shot at the development in the first four months of 2012, according to the 40th Precinct commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack.

The new security system, which NYCHA calls “layered access control,” will for the first time connect different equipment, such as locks and cameras, to one another and to a central office. Now, if a door is propped open too long, or a camera fails, NYCHA will be automatically alerted.

Other equipment improvements include wireless intercoms that can be controlled by cell phones, cameras whose digital recordings can be accessed at a central office and the electronic key tags which, unlike traditional keys, cannot be duplicated but can be disabled if lost.

To open the lobby doors in buildings rigged with the new security system, residents will wave the tear-shaped key tags, known as fobs, near a stainless steel, bulletproof and flame-resistant reader that the manufacturer, California-based Keri Systems, advertises as “field proven” to perform in “open hostile environments,” including “inner city housing projects.”

The company designed the readers jointly with NYCHA, whose agent fired a 9mm bullet at the reader at point-blank range to test its strength, according to Mike Bevan, Keri Systems’ North American sales manager.

City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo set aside $1.1 million for cameras at the Mott Haven Houses. NYCHA contributed $550,000, in addition to the $250,000 grant from HUD, for entryway protections at the development.

NYCHA selected the other developments, which are spread across all five boroughs, to receive upgrades based on need and which council members allocated funds, Negrón said.

The card readers come equipped with logging software, Bevan said.

“Every time a resident uses the key fob there’s a transaction,” said Bevan. “There’s a name, a date and a time associated with that transaction, so you’ll know who came into the building.”

Some Mott Haven Houses residents said they support the upgrades, but consider the key tag-logging an unnecessary intrusion.

“They’re tracking your comings and goings,” said Sharon White, whose building at the development, where she lives with her son, has not yet been upgraded. “They don’t need to know all that.”

Tenants added that certain elements of the new technology — especially software that records each time the electronic key tags are used to open a door — raise serious privacy concerns.

“It’s good for security reasons,” said Kenya Quick, 44, who lives with her three children at the Mott Haven Houses. “But for privacy? No.”

Negrón said that NYCHA is currently creating a policy for how to manage this data.

"We have not finalized our policy yet," Negrón said, "but [we] will most likely keep the log for a certain period of time."

Other Mott Haven tenants said the 300 security cameras to be installed both in and around the development's eight residential towers and community center would leave them feeling exposed.

“It’s going to make us feel like we have no privacy,” said Derrick, a 21-year-old resident who declined to give his last name. “That’s not going to make anyone safer.”

A 27-year-old tenant who withheld his name added, “Bottom line: They’re going to get broken.”

Besides the privacy concerns, other residents questioned how effective the cameras would be at preventing crime.

Tenants, as well as the local police captain, noted that no security system is foolproof, and that people will still have to take precautions to be safe.

Cynthia Cole, who grew up in the development and regularly visits her mother and friends there, noted that the cameras would mainly serve to catch criminals after they strike.

“All right with your camera,” said Cole, 55, “but by the time they notice I got shot, I might be dead.”

The president of Mott Haven’s resident association, John Johnson, worked with a nonprofit technology firm called Digital Divide Partnership to install five cameras in his building at the Mott Haven Houses about three years ago.

The video streams live over the internet, allowing residents to scope out the building’s lobby and exterior from their computers or smart phones. The company, who provided the service for free, calls the resident-run system a “virtual tenant patrol.”

Johnson said that system is more effective than NYCHA’s, which the police will not monitor and tenants cannot access.

“Their idea does not include residents at all,” said Johnson, 47.

Negrón said that resident leaders, such as Johnson, can take NYCHA training in order to access housing cameras under certain conditions. But, she added, "NYCHA believes strongly that access to our [closed-circuit TV] systems be restricted to law enforcement and trained personnel." 

Police officers in the department's Video Interactive Patrol Enhanced Response unit, known as VIPER, monitor the cameras at 15 NYCHA developments, according to Negrón. About one-fifth of NYCHA's 2,608 buildings currently have camera systems.

Negrón said the police department will not monitor the camera systems that will be added this year, which Deputy Inspector McCormack confirmed.

“The cameras will help us identify perps, but we’re not going to be monitoring them,” McCormack said.

He added that the new key tags, locks and alarms will not prevent tenants who choose to from opening lobby doors for strangers.

“The problem with most of these housing developments is that residents will let anybody in,” McCormack said, adding that four people have been shot at the Mott Haven Houses this year.

Many Mott Haven residents said it was not just criminals and strangers who threatened their sense of safety: police officers who regularly stop and question residents, seemingly at random, make tenants feel more constricted than secure, they said.

But the new cameras, they suggested, could change that.

“They need to be watched too,” said Cole, the former resident, “even though they’re watching us.”