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Eyes on the Street: Seeking Justice and Pressuring Freedoms

Eyes on the Street: Seeking Justice and Pressuring Freedoms
While some grasp camera footage as a vital method of law enforcement, others fear for their privacy.

It was a routine Thursday night in June — rainy and mostly quiet.

Alfonzo Melendez, a native of the Bronx, was thirsty — in the mood for a soda. Before bed, Melendez decided he would run to the deli around the corner from his apartment building. He would be back in a couple of minutes.

But as he walked out his building on 184th Street and Grand Concourse, Melendez was struck and thrown high into the air by a dark red minivan that seemed to come flying out of nowhere. He was treated at St. Barnabus Hospital in the Bronx, but died early the next morning. He was 49.

In an interview almost two weeks after the accident, his wife, Brenda Pagan, sat in the apartment she once shared with her husband and cringed at the thought of what had happened.

"I waited and waited, and he never came back up," Pagan said, her voice unsteady. Hours later, around 1 a.m., detectives knocked on the apartment door and delivered the news.

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“I went crazy,” Pagan said. “I couldn’t believe it because he was just coming out of my house at that moment.”

But perhaps the most tragic part of this story for Melendez’s family is the fact that the driver of the minivan is still on the road – unidentified.

Their only hope in finding justice: a couple seconds of video tape.

Jose Carrasquillo, Melendez’s son-in-law, said after the New York Police Department failed to collect any video from the scene, he started knocking on doors. Unexpectedly, he came across a camera that had recorded the entire incident. In fact, it was a camera installed by the same deli Melendez was walking to when he was killed. Carrasquillo said he quickly sent the tape to the police.

“We were worried about the whole thing, like what exactly happened,” he said. “And when we saw exactly what happened, it was just disgusting to find there’s actually someone who can sit here and hit someone and just drive away.”

Carrasquillo said he was confident the police will find the person responsible for hitting his father-in-law because of the video he discovered. He believes there should be more police-operated cameras on street corners everywhere, but especially in the Bronx.

“It’s good to walk down the street and know something – even if you’re by yourself in the middle of the night – is watching over you,” he said. “That if something does happen to you, the person that’s responsible for it won’t get away with it. In time, they will be caught.”

And it would seem most New Yorkers agree with him: 82 percent of city voters say they would like to see more surveillance cameras, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in May. (Not long after surveillance camera footage was found to have played an intregal role in finding the key suspects connected to the Boston bombings in April.)

But to the seemingly simple question of how many cameras there are on city streets, the answer is far more complicated.

Chris Dunn, an associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), focuses on the privacy aspects of surveillance cameras. He says a lack of public knowledge in this area is an overarching and systematic problem.

“Nobody knows what the actual rules are,” Dunn said. “Nobody knows how [police officers] are actually using the information. And there is not a reason in the world why a system of this magnitude and these sorts of privacy implications, there’s no external check whatsoever.”

The NYCLU counted 4,468 public and private cameras in Lower Manhattan alone in 2006. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly confirmed for New York Public Radio in April that the NYPD has access to at least 6,000 cameras across New York City.

He said between 10 and 15 percent of them are "smart cameras" – that is, cameras that have the capability of using algorithms to quickly identify unattended packages or group people by clothing color.

Experts say the cost of surveillance technology will continue to decline and more cameras are expected to be sprouting up on city streets. In Queens alone, $2 million has been set aside from the installation of more than 50 cameras within the next year.

Despite the added technology, Dunn says studies suggest surveillance cameras frequently move crime from one neighborhood to another, but don’t actually reduce the overall crime rate.

“There’s no question that surveillance cameras, or just cameras in general, can be effective in some circumstances in solving crimes after they’ve happened – the Boston bombings are a great example of that,” he said. “That does not mean, though, that there cannot be reasonable privacy protections built into these systems.”

What kinds of protections? Limits on how long police keep video footage, limits on who has access to the videos and limits on who the videos are shared with are most important, Dunn said.

But the distinction between cameras operated by private businesses, like delis, and those operated by the NYPD is shrinking every day. Dunn said: “I think for most purposes whether they’re public or private no longer makes much difference because the police have access to all of them.”

The NYPD declined to comment or provide any information for this story. But WFUV News was able to catch up with Commissioner Kelly.

“It helps us immeasurably in helping give us information to arrest people who have committed crimes,” he said of surveillance cameras. “So, for us, it’s a no-brainer and we’re going to continue to expand our use of cameras.”

When pushed on the issue of privacy: “Every time it’s polled, over 80 percent say they’re not concerned about it. So, I think it’s an old issue.”

But that answer continues not to sit well with some New Yorkers — particularly those who pray at the Masjid At-Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn. In fact, the local community — predominatly Muslim — recently joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union to file a lawsuit against the NYPD.

Amid their allegation of a widespread, unwarranted surveillance program they say began shortly after 9/11, sits a camera – marked clearly with the police seal — pointed directly at the front entrance of the mosque. It has been there since at least 2004, according to the complaint.

“Fundamentally, what we’re talking about is the right to privacy, the right to think and worship freely,” said Ramzi Kassem, an attorney involved in the lawsuit and a professor at the City University of New York. “I don’t think this is an old issue at all – in fact, I think it’s actually extremely timely.”

He says the camera’s presence in the local community has had a “chilling effect.”

“People felt they were under surveillance when all they wanted to do was go worship at their house of worship,” Kassem said. “Some of the congregants even left the mosque as a result of that; people were afraid of ending up in secret police files for no reason and being placed under surveillance for absolutely no reason.”

The mosque’s leadership declined to be interviewed and several congregants seemed nervous to talk about the camera. Kassem believes that feeling of a deeply-rooted suspicion has proliferated in the area over the past few years.

“There was no statement as to why the camera was being put up, and that fosters a great deal of distrust when it’s done in a way that signals to the community that the NYPD is not protecting or defending them, the NYPD is viewing them with suspicion,” Kassem said.

Not far from where a community continues to feel threatened by the presence of a surveillance camera, the Melendez family huddles close togehter. A lingering hope they will soon find justice radiates through the small apartment in which they are sitting. They hold tight to that short video tape. It and memories are all that remain.

“If there was no surveillance there, we wouldn’t even be where we’re at today,” said Jose Carrasquillo, Melendez’s son-in-law. “There’d be no closure.”

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