Watch Out 

Mt. Pleasant: 100 Surveillance Cameras And Counting


That's vomiting from the mouth of one of four big kids in bigger white Ts in the spit-shined van that just chirped up 153rd Street at Bartlett. Two blocks shy of the Shaker border, with its veritable wall of cop cruisers and NIMBY stares, Rhonda Jones, a rail-thin widow and single mother of five, stumbles a little bit when she hears it, like she's been hit. She puts her hand to her heart, then looks off toward her house, just a brick's throw from the corner, to see if her kids heard.

"You see the animosity? I'm really glad you were here to hear that," the 45-year-old says, walking off at a quicker clip toward the adjacent Johnson's Deli on Bartlett, an anorexic neighborhood store whose side lot and eaves were part of the corner's drug hub until surveillance was bolstered a month ago. "But that was tame. They hate me."

If hateful taunts were the only things flying around, Jones wouldn't be as concerned. Ever since she moved here nearly six years ago from 149th, a block with its own share of unpredictability, she's watched as an army of white Ts at her corner has grown brasher and smugger. Driveways became drive-throughs. Tree lawns, dumps. A growing number of boarded-up houses swelled with danger and despair. Fireworks or gun blasts? Rhonda never could tell.

But it was clearly the latter a year ago, when shots rang out near Johnson's Deli and tracked a young man to his death, behind a house across the street.

It's little wonder her 10-year-old son, one of two left in the nest, tells nearly everyone he knows that he wants to be an FBI agent when he grows up. "My parents raised us, no matter where we were at, in the best environment they could," says Rhonda. "That's every person's responsibility. I don't want my children to think this is the way it's supposed to be, with people selling drugs right in front of their house and shooting up the place. I'm going to raise my kids in the best environment I can, no matter what it takes. It's not where you live - it's how you live."

So last April, she went door-to-door with instructions from the federal Weed & Seed program to start a block club. "I said one thing, 'Are you sick and tired?' and most of them knew exactly what I was talking about," she recalls.

The new block club, with boisterous Rhonda as president, immediately applied pressure on Councilman Zack Reed, and this summer, quickly received for their troubled corner Mt. Pleasant's 100th surveillance camera, the first in a residential area. Police patrols have increased too, and streetlights are more apt to work than not.

"Before, you couldn't invite your friends over because you couldn't know what was going to happen," says Rhonda, cupping her hand at her ear. "Now you can hear a gnat piss on a rock."

THREE YEARS AGO, Mark Hasan, the owner of the Marathon station at East 125th and Kinsman, wasn't sure if he'd live to see retirement. That's how dangerous it was out in his parking lot.

When he installed two cameras out front, the "drugs, sex and drinking" just went around the corner. Then he asked and received the very first city-run camera in Mt. Pleasant, through an effort concocted by Reed to bolster security in high-crime commercial areas by hiring off-duty cops and installing cameras with foundation and block-grant funds. On a monitor in back, his own feeds, along with a roving one from the city camera, give him a sense of security that nothing else can.

Standing at the front of his store, Hasan sweeps his arm grandly at the orderly lot and proclaims with a chuckle, "If I'd have seen a white person coming in here a few years ago, he'd have been here to buy sex or drugs. And now look at it. Quiet."

He can't be concerned with where all the commotion was diverted to. "This is all I can control," he says. "I wish I could make the whole community safer, but I can't. I can only control and change what surrounds me here."

That's how 72-year-old Verdell Robinson feels. He's run Mr. V's convenience store just up the road at East 153rd and Kinsman for 24 years. And that means being alone late at night, with the prospect of anything going down. The city helped him put two cameras out front.

"They help me just for peace of mind," he says. "People around here, they know where all the cameras are. They know. So I got the cameras here with me as an extra set of eyes." INSIDE JOHNSON'S DELI, a monitor tucked away behind the counter shows feeds from the city camera at Bartlett and East 153rd, and several others installed on the roof of the building, covering a near-perfect circle for two blocks around. It's accessible remotely by a police lieutenant and select representatives.

But outside on the sidewalk, a 23-year-old with a white T to his knees is motioning to nearly every passing motorist and asking if they're set. He gives his name as B. "That all?" "For you."

B thinks the beefed-up security is a "pile of shit."

"I grew up here, since birth, and now you're gonna put cameras on me and watch where I go? You think stuff's gonna be safer now or not? There's nothing happening over here. They putting cameras in your neighborhood?" Johnson's owner for the last decade, a short elderly man who doesn't want his name in the paper, comes out and shoos B off with a shake of his head, along with the elderly toothless man with him, who's wearing a surgical cap and stinking of booze. "Go play someplace else."

From the monitors inside, you can see B glide over to the opposite corner of 151st Street and huddle with two younger soldiers in identical uniforms, around a middle-aged man in a plain red Indians T-shirt with a Blue Tooth in his ear. They keep looking over, motioning at Johnson's and then up and down the grid of streets around them. One of the group keeps yelling out to the passing cars, some of which turn up adjacent streets and double back up the block to less conspicuous stops.

John Elder, who's managed the store for a decade, says this is tame now. Before, it was "a zoo."

"It's a big difference," he says between ringing up cigarette and lottery sales. "I wish it were done sooner. You still see people on the corners sometimes, but people are starting to think now before they do something. People want to at least feel safe to move around."

Minutes later, where the huddle is still in place at 151st and Bartlett, B and the two teens in white scatter when this reporter approaches, while "Marty," the older man with the earpiece, sticks around, curiously apprehensive. At one point, for some reason, he pulls a small screwdriver from his pocket and starts twirling it through his fingers.

He's not dealing, he says. He's just talking to kids in the neighborhood. He too doesn't appreciate the cameras, though he says weakly that it "don't bother me." Then he launches into his reasoning for why it's an overboard gesture that's only going to create more problems for innocent bystanders. "What's going to happen is the police'll start messing with people on their front porches, drinking beer," Marty says. "They'll be stopping people and asking them, 'What are you doing on this corner?' when they're not doing anything at all."

Then he spends a few long minutes pointing to the trajectories of the various cameras in view to explain why he's standing on this particular corner now. He believes he can't be seen.

Monica Black, former vice president of the block club that Rhonda Jones formed, had a brick thrown through her car window just hours after praising the new surveillance on the nightly news. The local thugs already knew who she was from her in-your-face defense of the neighborhood.

"I've been the one who's done the most talking to them," she says. She'd tell them to "go to another street and sell your drugs," note pointedly the volume of little children running around, or ask, "Does your mother know you're out here?"

Still, the surveillance has been a boon to this block - to the detriment of others, says Black. "Now they're just on 151st or a block down at 154th, where there's no cameras," she acknowledges.

But that's not Eugene Shelton's problem. A few doors down from Rhonda's place, the 82-year-old is shucking a watermelon behind the manicured cottage-style house he built in 1959 on a janitor's salary. From back here, you don't have to stare forlornly through weeds at the two boarded-up houses right across the street.

"I think this is a great moment on this street," he says about the camera monitoring. "I don't know what's going on, on some other corner. You gotta start somewhere."

He figures it's better to have Big Brother watching than no one at all. "I hated the cameras before," he says. "They got two on Lee Road, those red-light things, and I hate them. But now, around here, I don't have to cross the road to go around the corner, you know? And nobody's watching me 'cept the cameras. I'm proud of them." PERHAPS DECRYING the loss of civil liberties is a luxury for those in better neighborhoods. But how many cold, robotic eyes it will take to make an overall dent in open-air criminality in Mt. Pleasant and the city's many other hot spots is still unclear.

Can you ever go back from here and actually remove cameras that have done their jobs? Or must an area be so saturated that everyone is watched all the time, like in London, where the movements of "suspect" individuals can be tracked in real time throughout the city?

In other words, do cameras work?

Ask residents and shopkeepers suffering through fearful encounters with dwindling hope, and your answer is clear. Ask residents and shopkeepers in areas cluttered with new loiterers, and your answer is equally illuminated. "We have seen a 65 to 75 percent drop in crimes in some areas," Councilman Reed says; he means where the cameras are pointing. But since overall crime has not been shown to dip, that means problems are likely intensifying elsewhere.

Police say they're working, both for investigative functions and for cops on the beat.

"There is no doubt that the cameras have had a deterrent effect in Mt. Pleasant," says Cleveland police spokesman Lt. Tom Stacho via e-mail. Like this: A Key Bank robber in Mt. Pleasant was caught earlier this year, by camera, fleeing the scene - a crystal-clear snapshot that led to a hasty arrest. Try ducking away unseen now, is the message that sends.

With 100 cameras in Mt. Pleasant, several more downtown and 37 red-light cameras with video capability throughout the city - most of which are instantly viewable via remote access to a police lieutenant who was unavailable for interview - Stacho says any increase will only help to facilitate better monitoring effectiveness. "We are working to expand their use in other areas such as parking lots and on street corners downtown," he says.

And here we go: all despite studies showing no overall effect on crime, no matter how many cameras go up.

In Great Britain, where the number of surveillance cams went from 100 in 1990 to 4.2 million today, the comfortingly named Home Office (their Homeland Security Department) performed two recent "meta-analyses," which pooled data from various concurrent studies, and mostly found "displacement" of criminality.

A 2002 study revealed a "statistically insignificant" impact on crime nationwide, though it noted that "cameras can be effective when used in specific environments and combined with other preventative measures." In 2006, another found "no overall effect."

Nevertheless, between 69 percent and 96 percent of survey respondents hailed the arrival of the cameras that went up around their homes and businesses.

In America, what few studies have been conducted deliver more lackluster news. A USC analysis of Los Angeles' system showed "no impact on crime." UC-Berkeley looked at San Francisco's 68 downtown cameras and blamed "displacement" for no change in the level of violent crimes, though there was a slight decrease in property crimes.

Tellingly, San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that the tepid effect didn't factor in the "psychological relief" the surveillance offered to those who came under its gaze.

With cheaper technology, improved centralization after 9/11 and unjustified feelings of camera comfort, the nation is fast approaching what the ACLU calls a "midnight" of total surveillance.

"The problem is, they don't work," says Chris Calabrese, counsel for the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program. "They just push criminality around. So then you have to ask, what's the cost? Wouldn't this money be better spent having people patrolling? Wouldn't you rather have an officer wandering the block and not some camera?" COUNCILMAN REED is acting downright antsy on Friday afternoon, and it's not just because he was preparing to don an orange jumpsuit for a 10-day sentence starting Monday for a recent string of DUI arrests.

He's phoning as many reporters as he can while he heads toward Mt. Pleasant from City Hall, with this reporter as chauffeur, hoping to get coverage for a rally he's planning for Saturday at the Family Dollar on Kinsman, which has been giving Reed a hard time by failing to trim the weeds and mop the floors. The store's been cited by the city.

"These drug boys, they're one type of terrorist, striking fear in people," he says. "And it's businesses like this that are terrorizing the neighborhood too, ruining people's ability to have pride." (During the rally, a landscaping crew and cleaners came around to start sprucing up the store.)

The rally dovetails nicely with his three-pronged approach to address his ward's decay economically, politically and socially. The cameras fit into the model too. So far, Reed's spent more than $225,000 on added patrols and surveillance. And counting.

On East 131st and Melzer, a quiet Boys and Girls Club breathes with the comings and goings of area children. Before he had cameras put in recently, criminal loitering was the rule at every hour of the day here. Now it's a new business-as-usual.

At a once-neglected store near Gay Street, a man asks Reed if the city's hiring, a common inquiry. "If I could just get back on the garbage truck, everything'd be fine," the man tells him. Reed references the recent hiring freeze announced by Mayor Frank Jackson, hands the man his card and moves on, shaking his head. "Everybody's hurting," he notes.

He steps out of the car at East 153rd and Bartlett, another surveillance success story.

"You couldn't come here at this time of day before," Reed says. "This was prime time. You can't imagine how it has dropped from that level. Look at this street." He points up and down the tree-shaded East 153rd, with its airy houses and cozy yards. "It looks like some street in Lakewood."

And it's true, to some degree. Of course, the white Ts can still be seen rolling through all these streets around here - some barking like puppies at every passing car, others simply motioning coolly with their eyes. Reed laments his new problem areas, locations he doesn't want publicized. It's like a dead-serious game of Whack-a-Mole.

"What this does is, it sends a message that we're serious about reducing crime," he says. "We'll go down to the next corner now, and the next. Our 100 cameras will become 1,000. We have to be prepared to do that. I don't care where you go, but you have to leave here."

No one screams anything nasty Reed's way … this time out. He's used to being verbally assaulted, like Rhonda Jones, only way more. And like Black, he's had a brick thrown through the window of his BMW. And he, too, won't relent. In fact, he's upping the ante. Not only is Reed now asking the city to help him pay for even more extra patrols and cameras in the residential areas where crime has shifted since the commercial surveillance surge - since it's harder, he says, to get permission to use special funding for residential monitoring - but he's helping to enlist his own army now. Bow ties welcome.

At 6 p.m. August 26, Reed will gather with leaders of the Ward 3-headquartered Nation of Islam at New Sardis Church, across from A.J. Rickoff Elementary School on Kinsman, to recruit young men who may be interested in throwing hot water on new hives around town. Reed says he was done playing nice years ago.

"They'll be patrolling their own neighborhoods, as Farrakhan suggested," Reed says, heading back toward City Hall now, staring out the window as we pass his former ward office, now an empty storefront like so many others around Cleveland. "I have the obligation to these people to create a better neighborhood. As Malcolm said, 'By any means necessary.'"

Any volunteers?

More by Dan Harkins


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