Preventing Crime With Tech: The Newark Experiment

When Cory Booker became Mayor of Newark, New Jersey in 2006 he made it a priority to fight crime in the city. Gang members took his pledge so seriously that they planned to assassinate him just before taking office.

To show his dedication, Booker lived in some of Newark’s most dangerous neighborhoods, well before becoming mayor. He continues to live in a blighted neighborhood today.

In 2007 three young adults were killed execution style in a Newark schoolyard (a fourth person survived being shot and knifed in the face). Security cameras at the school weren’t working.

Booker used the incident to launch Community Eye, a project that uses high quality security cameras and a gunshot detection system to monitor an eight square mile crime-heavy area of Newark. The cameras have night vision, record in high definition video and stream wirelessly to a nearby police station, where officers can control the cameras, zoom in on areas, etc. The gunshot detection system can triangulate on gunfire immediately after firing, and can automatically move cameras to monitor the area. Police are able to respond immediately.Community Eye now has over 100 cameras in place, and the gunshot detection system is going online soon.

We spoke to Mayor Booker about the system via telephone earlier this week and asked him about the effect on crime rates, privacy issues and how he plans to expand the system. Listen to the discussion below or at TalkCrunch. The full transcript follows.


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Michael Arrington: Hello this is Mike Arrington, I have Mayor Corey Booker of Newark, New Jersey on the phone with me today. Mayor Booker has made improving the lives of Newark citizens a priority in his administration and he continues to live in some of the most challenged neighborhoods in the city. He’s also expanded greatly a surveillance program, called Community Eye which is going to be the subject of our talk to today. Mayor Booker, welcome to TechCrunch.

Cory Booker: Thank you so much, it’s great to be on.

MA: You became mayor in July of 2006, you’re a couple of years in to your 4 year term. It sounds like right away when you became Mayor you started thinking about how surveillance could help some of the crime problems in your city. Can you talk about the Community Eye initiative, what it was when you started as Mayor, and what it’s become since then.

CB: Sure, there was not really any kind of coordinated camera program what so ever. There may have been a few cameras out, but there was no monitoring, there was no substantive, strategic approach to using them. We realized right away that, one, from looking at other cities, and trying to learn from successes internationally to here in America, there was a lot of security leaders that talked about cameras as a positive thing. I knew we had to get more police on the streets. But we also had to find things that were force multipliers, ways of spreading out our police for in a way that gave us dramatically more coverage in preventing crime, reacting to crime, and adequately responding with emergency resources. So we began to explore the use of cameras, the first thing we did was use a local UEZ program, Urban Enterprise Zone to fund some cameras. Again, they were expensive, and I inherited a city that had a tremendous budget deficit. So I was trying to figure out ways to fund more cameras, we had already started a police foundation which was critical for helping with key technology advancements, from just getting computers into police cars, to other cutting edge things, they also funded our anonymous hotlines and tip lines for people who call in, and let the police know someone’s carrying an illegal gun and I know some information about a crime and get up to $2000 as a result of that. So we had a void, to try to meet my dream of having a huge wireless for cameras, and something else called gunshot detectors. Which means if a gun goes off in a zone, we’d be able to identify in seconds where the gun went off.

MA: And those are separate devices right, you have surveillance cameras and the gunshot detection systems as a separate device?

CB: Exactly, so this was a dream for us, what we thought we be a dramatic game changer, or force multiplier, but we had no way of funding it. And we were able to turn a terrible tragedy into a real community collation to get this funding that we needed. So when the 3 college children were murdered here in Newark almost exactly a year ago, we really called out to the community at a time that many people were looking for answers, and said that this isn’t THE answer but it is defiantly a set of tools that can help us make a significant difference in our fight against crime.

MA: So at the time of the murders, there were actually video cameras in the area but they were broken right?

CB: It wasn’t city property, it was the school districts buildings’, and they had some cameras but they weren’t being monitored and they were broken indeed.

MA: They were standard security cameras, and maybe you can go into more detail about the cameras you’re installing; I understand that they’re wireless, they stream the video, which is high quality to a central police station and it’s being monitored in real time, is that right?

CB: Absolutely, These are not your standard security cameras; these are high resolution, night vision capability, the ability to go over great distances, many miles in fact. Some of the cameras we have in the downtown district can read the tail numbers off of airplanes miles away at the airport. These are some of the highest, state of the art cameras, that have revolution capabilities, they can move around. They can focus in and read the name off an ID badge, pretty impressive technology.

MA: Does that mean they can be controlled remotely as well as from police officers at the station.

CB: Exactly, our monitor station has numerous police officers and well as trained civilians, who sit and monitor the cameras, and have full control over them as well. We’ve been seeing remarkable successes coming out of the cameras.

MA: It sounds like you’ve actually come a long way toward getting to the funding you needed. You need a total of 3.2 million for the 2nd phase of this?

CB: A total of 3.2 million for the wireless network, the cameras, as well as the gun shot detection devices.

MA: And how many cameras are we talking about?

CB: Well we’re hoping that this will be rolling cameras out for a while. We’ve got the first 109 cameras up, in about a 7-8 square mile area. And we don’t want to stop there. We realize they’re such powerful tools; the more we can get up, the more we can undermine crime in communities and ultimately begin to make criminals realize if the do something they’re going to get caught, either through traditional policing methods, through cameras, or some of the other things we’re deploying. Once there’s that knowledge, you begin to have people not as confident carrying a gun, or doing something illegal out in broad daylight. And what happened in New York, we talked to a lot of the criminologists involved in that effort, was it got to a point where the brazenness of criminals, gang members, drug dealers, out in the streets was so undermined, that they eventually drove a lot of the efforts to deal these drugs completely away or indoors. Driving things underground takes away a lot of the violence that’s associated with drug dealings and narcotics. And we’ve realized the majority of our shootings are narcotics related. So if you drive the narcotics trade underground, and we still have narcotics divisions that deal with major investigations, but just by getting people off street corners, and stopping narcotics folks from carrying guns because they realize there’s a high cost in doing so. Eventually we’re going to hit a tipping point in Newark where we’re not just going to see the dramatic reductions that we’re having now, but just spectacular reductions that will give residents the sense of security that they deserve.

MA: You said you have 109 cameras now. We’re those installed by May?

CB: They were rolled out almost immediately after the summer, after the August where we had that terrible problem. So they’ve been slowly rolled out since then. Now, as of the end of May or early June, we’ve had the full 109 up.

MA: In the 7-8 square miles that those cameras cover, what kinds of results have you seen in the crime rate?

CB: Well, we’ve experienced a dramatic overall decrease in violent crime. We’re pretty much the number one city in America right now for violent crime in 2008, a 40% reduction in murder, and a double digit reduction in shootings. That is unassailable results that we’ve had, through a collection of are tools and strategies. To measure precisely what one strategy does is very difficult, but the anecdotal evidence of the cameras, story after story, week after week of times that we’re able to prevent crime, where you see someone on a street corner present a gun to a friend, for example, flash it to them, put it back in their belt, under they’re jacket. We’ve had cases like that or where you see people case out a joint, or seeing people engage in narcotics trade. All of these things are helping us not only to prevent crime and respond to crime, but it’s also helping us in prosecution. We have shown some dramatic video the media about apprehending people who have been involved with crime or preventing people who are carrying illegal weapons. So, I am very confident. The other thing I notice, which is a good thing, but some people just think you’re displacing crime, is a lot of the high crime areas, we’ve put up cameras. The drug dealers have just gone away. Even today I had some residents come up to me and say they were so appreciative that their neighborhood that used to be plagued by drug dealing is now a lot clearer and cleaner. The cameras really help with that. That combined with law enforcement presence and enforcement can actually eradicate the problem or drive it very underneath where it doesn’t cause the public hazards the narcotics trade often does.

MA: In San Francisco they places some cameras, I don’t think they were the same kinds of cameras, near UC Berkeley, and reportedly there was a big decrease in homicides where the cameras were, but there was a big spike right outside of the range. Have you seen anything like that where you’ve seen crime move or just sort of moving it somewhere else (which would be a bad thing)?

CB: We’re not in the sense in that we’re enjoying an overall, all over the city, precinct by precinct, reduction in murders and shootings at an astounding level. People told me when I first came into office, that if I saw a 10% reduction in murders, that’s dramatic. And not just in 1 year, but as mayor for 4 years to accomplish that. This year alone we’re having 40%, not to mention what we accomplished last year. Overall, everywhere we’re seeing a reduction in crime. In some areas we’re seeing it completely stop. We picked our worst area in the city for the most shootings, and we took our police academy class and deployed a high level of them in that area. But look, near where I live, there’s a street where guys used to deal drugs on the main street. They don’t hang out on that main street, but on some of the side streets I see evidence that guys are hanging out over here, I’ve heard reports of that. They know where the cameras are and they move a little bit, but then what the police officers are doing is responding to that by being able to more strategically deploy the resources. So if you move them off certain areas, then you can understand that you have that force multiplier. So that street’s now covered, let’s move are police officers to address another area. That seems to be very helpful to us.

MA: What has been the community reaction? I expect you’re going to say very positive, but has there been anyone that’s complained about privacy issues?

CB: Yeah, definitely. We were very proactive. The director of the ACLU and the ACLU director was actually a friend of mine, was very negative on cameras and seemed to try to come up with some evidence that they don’t work, which to us is sort of absurd. I’ve sat in the monitoring room and see us stop crime and get guns off the streets. What we did is invite her and the ACLU in to help us design standard operating procedures and privacy protection. They were part of the process. It was a good thing. The editorial that they wrote, claiming cameras don’t work, but they actually were complimentary. If it’s going to be done we set a good path of working with them to make sure it’s done the right way. Those are usually the only complaints I hear, are from people who have privacy concerns about cameras, and I respect that, but I think it’s always a balancing act whenever you talk about constitutional rights. For example, between the larger issues of safety and security, a balance in terms of rights to security or what have you. I think that there’s enough of a presumed understanding that when you step outside on a public street, you are surrendering some of the privacy rights you might have in your apartment or in church, or inside other buildings. Our standard operating procedures prevent our people from looking into buildings, looking into car windows. It’s something we do not do as a result of the agreement’s we held with the ACLU.

MA: The devices themselves, who makes them?

CB: I do not know the company’s name off hand and apologize, but we can get you that information later on. One of my staff members is maybe looking through it while I’m talking to you.

MA: Also, the gunshot detection system, I’d love to know.

CB: I know the team we’ve contracted for that is ShotSpotter. That’s the name of the organization and they have some dramatic testimony to the percentages of reductions that have happened before and after that technology has been put in place. And again, the power of the technology is not just to respond to an immediate gun shot going off, but it is also the deterrent. If people will begin to think – If I do shoot off a gun there will be people on me in seconds

MA: So this device can tell if a gunshot was fired, and where it was coming from within a mile or two ?

CB: No, down to less than a foot.

MA: I didn’t mean how accurate, but how far away can it detect a gunshot?

CB: Anywhere within about 7-8 miles. Within that zone, which is where 70-80 percent of the city’s shootings have taken place in the past, and we will know exactly where you are.

MA: So it is probably triangulating. Is that right?

CB: I imagine so. Yes.

MA: And it can tell the caliber of the gun as well? The type of gun?

CB: No. They can just distinguish between a car backfiring, a firecracker, and other sounds of the like.

MA: So a shot goes off within this 7-8 mile zone, shot spotter detects it, and the cameras zoom in on that area The police now know about it immediately. They don’t have to wait for phone calls to come in on 911, and they are subsequently able to get there much faster. So are you seeing arrests being made that wouldn’t be made otherwise?

CB: We are not going live with it until next month. So I can’t give you that kind of feedback yet.

MA: So the ShotSpotter hasn’t gone live yet.

CB: No it will go live next month.

MA: Great, well I would love to check back in with you and see how that worked out.

CB: Yes I would be happy to share with you our results.

MA: So have other cities contacted you just to see how this is going? Have you been attracting a lot of interest from other cities?

CB: Definitely. Right now people are starting to take notice. My police director especially is being reached out to by a lot of law enforcement personnel. As I travel around I have mayors hearing of our success and asking me about our tactics, and that’s really our whole para noir. It’s not just in law enforcement. There are a lot of different areas to incubate ideas and to innovate upon approaches, and to be able to create things that can be exported into other places. We are all in the same trench so to speak, we are all fighting the same battle. The uniqueness of drug wars or gang violence is not that different depending where you are going, and the strategies we cultivate could have to do with anything from prison re-entry to youth cultivation to gang reduction. We hope to be a source to the rest of the nation of a lot of successful ideas.

MA: The most current information I have is that you have raised 2 million of the 3.2 million you need to purchase everything you need for the network. Is that correct or are you above that now?

CB: I am not sure exactly we are in the fund raising, I know we have enough now to go live with the network. It may have already all been raised. But the challenge we have is that seeing the success of the cameras and the hopeful success of the gun shot detection makes us want to expand the network as well as fill in areas that can be filled in with cameras. This is a great thing to communicate to people. If you buy one camera, or ten cameras, you are literally saving lives, and we have a lot of evidence to support that case. It is the best way for an American, in my opinion, to protect their nation. So we are hoping we can find more philanthropists that are willing to make this strategic investment with us so we have an exciting story to tell, along with new work and evidence that combinations of such techniques and strategies really work and make a difference.

MA: We will link to the page where people can look at Community Eye and make a donation of any size via Mastercard or mail. Here is one last question, and this is a little off topic. With the cameras live streaming, I assume only the police department sees it, and I assume that you dump most of the data after 30 days or so to keep stuff that will be used as evidence. People are getting more and more used to the face that they may be on video camera when out in public, so do you ever see this data being streamed to the public live on the internet, or put onto Google maps. Do you ever see this being available to the public, or is that something you have strongly been advised against.

CB: I actually think that would be a positive thing. We have really only begun to explore our ability to give these live feeds of certain areas to make them available to the public. Or in a limited capacity I think would be very helpful or at least would be a good experiment to that by putting even more eyes on the street if people might be able to see things. It is something we really want to explore, but frankly we have to work with our partners. I want to explore a lot of things. Even just picking up traffic, people could see how busy it is in the downtown. We have a very strong curtain of transparency in the city right now. We are trying to move the city to be much more open, and this is something that I definitely want to explore.

MA: Great, well thanks very much for your time.

CB: Thank you. I really appreciate your interest in this.

MA: Who are you voting for this year?

CB: Voting for, campaigning for, and flying around the country for Obama.

MA: Think he is going to win?

CB: I do now. I am actually beyond the point of certainty.

MA: Yeah that’s who I am voting for, and I think most of Silicon Valley is also. So good luck with helping him on his campaign as well.

CB: California and New Jersey are not the swing states where you and I need to get access.

MA: That’s right. I think California is probably pretty locked up for him, but he is getting my vote. Thank you very much. I would love to check back in with you when this system is in place and you have some data to back all of this. I would love to check in and understand from you or someone in your staff how that is working out.

CB: Thanks.