Unexpected arrival of surveillance cameras in East Falls prompt ‘big-brother’ concerns

 Five surveillance cameras installed this week throughout a portion of East Falls are not yet active. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

Five surveillance cameras installed this week throughout a portion of East Falls are not yet active. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

The view from Mark Tarsiewicz’s front porch in East Falls recently changed.

The telephone pole where Vaux Street meets Indian Queen Lane now features a soon-to-be activated surveillance camera tied into the Philadelphia Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center. It’s one of at least five cameras recently installed in that pocket of the neighborhood, with more anticipated.

Their recent arrival prompted a litany of calls to Fourth District City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.’s office, most notably because they seemingly materialized out of nowhere, and without a public discussion of the privacy ramifications.

One of those calls came from Tarsiewicz, who has lived in his family home for all of his 61 years. He said answers were still scarce.

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“They weren’t sure why the police were doing it, other than it might be related to crimes from several years ago,” he told NewsWorks on Thursday. “It’s good that there are ‘eyes on the street,’ but a lot of times when you see footage on TV, it’s after the fact. It doesn’t prevent anything, but it could give police a hand in catching the perpetrators.”

Considering that the camera-facing side of his home is heavy on windows, Tarsiewicz does worry about privacy being pierced.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “On one hand, it may be a deterrent, but then there’s the whole ‘Big Brother’ thing, too.”

How did this happen?

Word of the cameras initially spread late last month through a post on the East Falls section of the “Philadelphia Speaks” website.

There, Vaux Street resident William Webb took note of cameras being installed at Bowman Street and Indian Queen Lane wondering whether there was any “public discussion about this that I completely missed?”

The ensuing chatter made clear that there hadn’t been a public debate about the cameras still wrapped in plastic along Indian Queen Lane (at Vaux, Conrad and Wiehle sts.), at Vaux and Bowman sts. and Sunnyside Ave. and Cresson St.

Webb said he has several questions that, to residents, remain unanswered:

“Who actually requested and approved these cameras?
“Did this process actually include any community input, particularly from the affected residents? If so, when? If not, why?
“Why were the current installation locations selected?
“What is the final deployment strategy?
“Can any of this be reversed?”

While 39th District officials didn’t have those answers — it will likely come up at Saturday’s PSA meeting (7 p.m., Downs Hall, Philadelphia University) — Mary Jane Fullam of East Falls Town Watch said it’s likely been attributed to Homeland Security grant monies brought back by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.

The police department’s Office of Innovation & Technology is in the midst of a camera program with those funds.

Residents, officials react

On Tuesday, Webb posted that hi-definition cameras were currently being installed and would soon be tied into the Police Department Real Time Crime Center‘s monitoring system.

“Really excited to be getting something so intrusive that we never asked to receive,” he added sarcastically.

Fullam echoed Webb’s sentiment.

“It seems like it’s an awful lot of cameras all at once, and people are upset not knowing. We didn’t know. The police contend they didn’t know,” Fullam said. “So many cameras all at once makes people think ‘I live in a bum neighborhood; I have to be watched all the time.’

“Some people think, ‘Great. The more cameras, the better off we are. But, I’m a ‘1984’ type person so I’m not as happy. I share the neighbors’ concerns.”

Not everyone was as critical.

Living on nearby Penn Street five years ago, Greg Curci’s family’s home was hit during a spate of since-solved burglaries. In at least one case, residents victimized in a home invasion moved away in the aftermath.

Since East Falls isn’t as crime-riddled as some sections of the 39th District, Curci recalled current Capt. Michael Craighead’s predecessor suggesting that residents get surveillance cameras for their properties to make up for a lower level of police-patrol priority.

“If we had cameras, we’d have eyes on the streets at 3 or 4 in the morning,” Curci recalls the police captain saying as a way of helping gather evidence on then-unsolved cases. “I have no problem with them. In fact, I’d love it if there was one on the pole in front of my house.”

Barnaby Wittels, president of the East Falls Community Council, conceded that the group “doesn’t know a whole lot” about how the cameras came to the neighborhood, either.

While Craighead recounted talking with the EFCC about it in 2012, there’s no record of that discussion in the group’s meeting minutes,” Wittels said. (Fullam, who also spoke with Craighead, said neither knew who sparked the conversation about bringing cameras to East Falls).

“It’s news to us as much as it’s news to anybody else,” he said. “We have no [official] position on it one way or another.”

He noted that it could come up as a topic at Monday’s EFCC meeting, but will definitely be a topic of discussion at the executive meeting the following week.

From his perspective, Fourth District City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. noted the benefits of these sorts of cameras on Philadelphia streets, even if the installation’s timing caught him off-guard as well.

“We have found time and time again that these cameras are a deterrent to crime and a good starting point for police if a crime has been committed in the vicinity of a crime,” Jones said Thursday. “We very much hope that the cameras placed in East Falls will help reduce the quality of life crimes that have occurred in the neighborhood in recent years.”

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