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Big Brother cleans up crime in New Jersey town

Mark Egan / Reuters | April 4 2006

Comment: If big brother is here to save us all from crime then why is big brother also being used places where there is virtually zero crime? Like Dillingham Alaska, a town with a population of only 2,400 that recently received a Homeland Security grant for $202,000 to install a surveillance network.

EAST ORANGE, New Jersey (Reuters) - Lenox Avenue in suburban East Orange was long a hotbed of drugs and gun mayhem and one of New Jersey's toughest streets. But Big Brother has cleaned it up.

Police here say that thanks to new technology there has not been a single violent crime in almost a year on a street where the notorious Bloods gang sold $10 hits of crack cocaine and drive-by shootings were once commonplace.

Now high-tech cameras and gunshot sensors are mounted at each end of Lenox Avenue, and on many other East Orange streets. The residential avenue of mainly multifamily homes is blocked from traffic and, with the exception of the 24-hour police presence, it looks as tranquil as most New Jersey suburbs.

"There's no drug dealers or nothing here. They all left," said Andre Davis, 15, riding his scooter on Lenox. "There's no gang bangers, no drugs. The cops done a good job."

The effort is part of a push to reverse a trend which saw the town -- once a middle-class suburb of executives who took a 30-minute train ride to Manhattan -- reverse a decline sparked by the deadly 1967 race riots in neighboring Newark, which gradually transformed the town into a slum populated almost entirely by lower-income blacks.

"This was once a very prominent city and a very safe place to live," said East Orange Police Director Jose Cordero of the town of about 70,000 people, whose Central Avenue was once called "the Fifth Avenue of New Jersey."

More recently, Cordero said, "People were fearful of not being able to walk their streets."

The veteran New York City police officer took the top job here in 2004 and says homicides dropped to a 25-year low of 14 in 2005, down from 22 in 2003. Overall crime is at a 20-year low.

Last summer, police installed cameras in crime-ridden neighborhoods and on the city's commercial center, each equipped with sensors that can detect the sound of gunfire. Police use the cameras to zoom in on certain streets and virtually "walk" down the pavements looking for crime.

DONATED TECHNOLOGY

In what local cops call "The Brain Room," a half-a-dozen officers monitor large flat-screen televisions showing street activity. And a "Virtual Community Patrol" allows residents to view panoramic still pictures of their block and report crimes to police using their home computers.

"This program ... essentially hands over to community residents the ability to place the eyes of the police on a criminal problem with the click of a mouse," Cordero said.

East Orange spent about $300,000 on the system, but the Internet technology that brings it all together was donated by a Manhattan-based company that provides broadband networks for law enforcement. Police here say the equipment was free because the firm that makes it hopes to use East Orange as a model to convince other towns to buy such systems.

Only a handful of U.S. cities including Newport News, Virginia, have installed gunshot detectors -- more normally used by the military to detect snipers in places such as Afghanistan. East Orange police believe their overall crime technology is superior to that of any similar-sized U.S. city.

"This is a city moving in the right direction," Sgt. Chris Anagnostis said as he drove around the town he has policed for 19 years, pointing to just-built commercial developments still awaiting tenants and new apartment buildings and townhomes.

But for now Central Avenue, once home to upscale department stores, fashionable boutiques and elegant restaurants, is a parade of fast-food joints and discount stores.

On at least one block, things have improved. The Hollywood Theater, a plush movie palace where Spencer Tracy once attended a movie premiere, has recently reopened as a five-screen multiplex. The theater had been dark since 1986 before the $2.5 million renovation by Hollywood Cinemas.

Ken Baris of Jordan Baris Inc. Realtors in nearby West Orange said a slew of new developments are selling well and, with homes in nearby towns such as Montclair regularly fetching over $1 million, he believes it is only a matter of time before commuters return to a town they long ago abandoned.

HOPING FOR RESURGENCE

Mayor Robert Bowser wants to transform East Orange into an arts center that could attract New Yorkers tired of exorbitant rents, noting spacious, newly refurbished, pre-war apartments here rent for a fraction of Manhattan prices.

Bowser is in talks with big-name retailers and galleries, plans to open a school for the performing arts and hopes to attract a jazz club. But progress has been painfully slow.

"The problem with every major retailer we speak to is that none of them want to be the pioneer who is the first one to come to the city," Bowser said in an interview.

"What I'm concerned about is the people problem. We need a balance," he said of his city, where more than 90 percent of the population is black and less than 4 percent is white. "I always say, 'If we get one Starbucks we will have arrived.'"

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