Northern Liberties residents might soon be under the watchful eye of a new $100,000 security camera system if a proposal from the Northern Liberties Business Owners Association is approved by the board of the Penn Treaty Special Services District.
The plan would see an Internet-based system of about 50 security cameras placed in various locations throughout the community.
Residents approved the plan by a wide margin during a May 26 meeting.
According to Nina De Costa, president of the NLBOA, the idea for the cameras began almost exactly a year ago with the horrific murder of Sabina Rose O’Donnell, a 20-year-old waitress who lived at Fourth Street and Girard Avenue. Last Wednesday, June 1, marked the first anniversary of O’Donnell’s death.
“This all kind of started with the death of Sabina,” said De Costa. “The whole Sabina thing really turned me around. Something good has to come out of that … We need to protect ourselves.”
Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, where De Costa presented the surveillance camera plan during last month’s general meeting, said residents had a few concerns, but a vote at the end of the meeting offered “significant support” for the idea.
Coincidently, the NLNA meeting to discuss security cameras came on the heels of another murder, this one at Front Street and Girard Avenue less than 24 hours beforehand. Police said Quasheam Richburg, 20, stormed the Trax Foods store at about 3 a.m. that morning and fatally shot the cashier, Moustafa Shaker.
Using surveillance footage from that incident, police identified Richburg, who is currently sought for his suspected involvement in the crime.
“I think it’s a great thing, if it’s handled correctly,” said Ruben.
The proposal is to place a network of security cameras around commercial properties in Northern Liberties where crime is the worst.
The camera locations, when they are selected, will be marked so their presence is made known, but “in an informative, not a scary, way,” promised De Costa.
According to Tom Updegrove, senior consultant for InterNetwork Service, an IT company based at 21st and Chestnut streets, the system would likely be broken down to offer four sets of cameras at 12 locations — placed only on businesses not on residential properties — likely along the commercial corridor on Second Street.
How did Updegrove learn of the NLBOA idea? He’s a stakeholder at PYT, a restaurant owned by his son, Tommy Up, in the Piazza at Schmidts.
Through PYT’s involvement in the NLBOA, Updegrove said, he learned about the project and he hopes to provide a high-resolution camera system, with unlimited recording ability, at a reasonable cost.
“He has a great reputation and a lot of integrity,” said De Costa of Updegrove.
Updegrove said his company provided the security camera system for the parking lot at Atlantic City’s Tropicana casino.
“That’s what they really want is high-def cameras,” he said.
Cameras alone, he said, each could cost about $250-$1,000, similar security systems cost about $10,000 for a network of just four cameras.
For $100,000, he believed he could provide a stronger, more versatile system with about 50 cameras.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work with this in the last 10 years,” he said.
According to De Costa, another company, which had done work with the city’s 26th Police District in the past, had been contacted to provide cameras, but they dropped out.
Joe Rafter, head of the Penn Treaty Special Services District, which received the request from the NLBOA for the funding, said the project could be approved at the PTSSD’s next meeting, to be held Wednesday, June 22.
If approved, the project would receive half of its funding now to start as a pilot program and another half in the fall when the PTSSD gets additional funding from SugarHouse casino.
“A large majority of people wanted this,” said Rafter, noting the vote from the NLNA meeting.
Rafter said that as the community has grown in recent years, it’s also seen a growth in its share of criminal activity, be it violent crime or, much more often, robberies and car break-ins.
Cameras in areas where there isn’t as much development, and fewer eyes on the street, could help impact crime, said Rafter.
“There are still a lot of dark spots in the neighborhood. There are spots where it would be good to see more development,” he said.
While much of this project remains in limbo — where these cameras will be placed, the types of cameras that will be used and even just who would have access to view camera feeds on this system — Updegrove said the funding would be used to purchase and install cameras that would be attached to a web server for unlimited recording space.
“You could store the Library of Congress,” joked Updegrove about the space potentially available for recorded footage.
But, how long might this footage be stored and who would be permitted to view this footage?
According to De Costa, the plan is to provide the footage to police only if they need it for an investigation. Otherwise, the cameras would only be viewed by someone, likely Updegrove, who would do maintenance on the system.
There would be no one that would monitor the cameras round the clock.
“Nobody can sit there and monitor everything, that’s not the idea,” said De Costa.
While the PTSSD plans to meet at the end of this month, De Costa said her group will be working with the NLNA, the Northern Liberties Town Watch and officers from the 26th Police District and the 6th Police District to determine camera placement based on crime statistics, and come up with a concrete plan for how the system will be used and monitored.
“We will have to get a group together to hammer some issues out,” she said.
She said that before anything is purchased or installed, there will be time for public input and updates on the project at upcoming NLBOA and NLNA meetings.
Capt. Mike Cram of the 26th Police District, which patrols the areas where the cameras could be installed, said he liked the NLBOA’s surveillance plan.
“This is the community’s idea, not mine,” he noted. “But, I think it’s a fabulous idea.”
The captain said that not only could the cameras be a successful criminal deterrent, but also they could help the officers catch criminals — and ensure convictions — after a crime occurs.
In fact, he pointed to a citywide police project, called SafeCam — a growing online database of locations where Philadelphia residents and business owners list active surveillance cameras to help police find footage following a crime — as an example of how this system could help investigations.
“There’s no doubt about it, they help lead to the arrest of people,” agreed Updegrove.
Discussing just who would then monitor the cameras, if not police directly, Updegrove said that was still up for the community to decide.
“People might say that this is like George Orwell’s book, 1985, and maybe it is,” he said. “But, that’s why we have to make sure the community is involved. That’s why we have to manage it.”
If the project is indeed approved, it will have the ability to grow. It is expandable, meaning residents could add their own cameras to the system – De Costa said in Northern Liberties alone, 60 residents have surveillance cameras already.
“And, of course, there’s already plenty of businesses with cameras already,” reminded De Costa.
If the plan proves successful, it might expand out of the neighborhood too.
Residents can add their own cameras into the system and, Rafter said, if people like how it works, he could see it spreading north through the rest of the casino’s SSD.
“This is a pilot program,” said Rafter. “We will see how this works and it could be used throughout the SSD.”
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org