The Jordan Downs housing project is one of Los Angeles’ most dangerous and blighted communities, with a high crime rate and residents too poor to purchase computers, let alone Internet service.
Los Angeles police have a plan to attack both the digital divide and the violence. By year’s end, the Los Angeles Police Department intends to place at least a dozen surveillance cameras inside the 700-unit, World War II-era complex and along connecting streets to Jordan High School.
In a carrot-and-stick twist, the cameras will provide the projects’ 2,400 residents and some of its Watts neighbors with free wireless Internet access.
Funding for the project, which will come from Motorola and the federal Housing and Urban Development department, through the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, is in its final stages, but Police Chief William J. Bratton already has announced it to the Police Commission. The LAPD has used surveillance cameras to clean up MacArthur Park and Hollywood Boulevard, but the Jordan Downs project is the first in the city to focus on an exclusively residential area.
“It is more residential than the other areas like MacArthur Park. But I believe residents will grow to understand this is there to protect them,” said LAPD Cmdr. Charlie Beck, who is overseeing the Jordan Downs initiative. “It’s the criminals, not residents, we’re targeting.”
Still, many residents and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California view the plan to stream live video of residents’ comings and goings to patrol cars and squad rooms as an invasion of privacy.
“I wouldn’t want the LAPD to watch me day to day,” said resident David Valencia, 37. “Mexicans and blacks don’t usually agree on anything around it. But none of us want to be watched.”
“How do you think they’d feel if I put a camera outside their homes? Who decides where they are looking?” said six-year resident Robert Lopez, 23, sitting outside his apartment. Besides, he said, he knows of few residents who have computers to take advantage of the Internet access.
If approved, the federal government would provide $400,000 for the cameras and other equipment and $300,000 for educational and recreational programs. Motorola would donate about $1 million worth of equipment and labor, Beck said.
The LAPD plans to use some of the program funds to conduct computer classes. Officials are also hoping to get corporate donors to provide computers to Jordan Downs residents.
Jordan Downs was selected because its crime rate per person is the highest of any public housing complex in the city, Beck said.
Since 2000, 14 homicides have been recorded at or near the complex, and violent incidents, while declining in the rest of the city, increased from 243 in 2002 to 254 last year, officials said. While crime has fallen since its peak in the early 1990s, ice cream truck jingles and the sounds of children playing give way at night to gunfire.
The presence of the Grape Street Crips gang, which is under a gang injunction, and the project’s proximity to Jordan High School, which was shut down last year because of disturbances, also influenced the decision, Beck said.
The video cameras use a cutting-edge technology called mesh networking that can send images to squad cars even when they are out of the line of sight. Police can control the cameras with dashboard monitors and joy stick-like devices.
“If there is a disturbance, an officer can pull up a feed from the camera before even getting to the scene,” Beck said.
Authorities say they also plan to put license-plate reading technology in some of the police cruisers.
Camera footage will be used in court cases or destroyed after three months, authorities said.
“This isn’t about Big Brother. It is about protecting and serving the public,” said Police Commission Vice President Alan Skobin.
The wireless Internet will give residents access to online job and education information. It’s the kind of added bonus the city is looking for in a project, Skobin added.
But residents were skeptical of the “bonus.”
“Do you think people around here are going to trust the LAPD to use their Internet connect?” said James Foreman, 32, sitting on a doorstep on 102nd Street in the heart of the complex.
“The Internet thing is a little gimmicky and isn’t going work,” added Lopez, wearing a T-shirt with the image of actor Al Pacino as Scarface.
The cameras will be wrapped in bulletproof casings to discourage vandalism. But some residents said they expect youths to attack the cameras with paintball guns.
Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the area, said she was “cautious about endorsing the cameras.”
“Since we lost funding for the housing police department, the LAPD told us they don’t have the officers to patrol properly. So it will, I guess, provide some security and a watchful eye,” Hahn said. But, “someone has to be watching the screen and paying attention. Do we have officers to respond in a timely manner?”
Chicago; Kansas City, Mo.; and San Francisco have cameras in public housing projects, as part of a larger trend toward increased police surveillance, authorities say.
“Cameras are as much a part of policing now as handcuffs,” said Assistant Chief George Gascon, head of daily LAPD operations.
Images captured by London’s extensive network of cameras led to Scotland Yard’s identification of four men suspected in the deadly subway and bus bombings there this summer, Gascon said. Closer to home, “virtual patrols” drove down crime in the Rampart Division, including MacArthur Park, by 45% over the last two years. The park area accounted for the majority of the crime, officials said.
Some at Jordan Downs welcome the cameras as a way to loosen the Grape Street Crips’ stranglehold on the community.
“I think it is good. Maybe it will catch someone,” said one woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of gang retribution. “The police don’t know what is going on out here.”
Other residents of Jordan Downs professed distrust of police. Foreman said the cameras would underscore the impression that Jordan Downs is a prison camp and the LAPD an occupying army.
“Who are the cameras there to protect?” he asked.
Elizabeth Schroeder, an ACLU associate director, said the LAPD needs to answer some tough questions before the cameras go in.
“Where are cameras going to be positioned? Will they be able to see into people’s windows?” she asked.
The LAPD insists the cameras will be strictly monitored, and none will be trained into homes.
Aqeela Sherrills, founder of the Community Self-Determination Institute and a broker in the 1992 Watts gang truce, said the money would be better spent on youth programs.
“It is a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Sherrills said.