NEWARK — Robert Foraker has his electronic eyes on a mission: to make downtown Newark a safer place to shop, dine and do business.
The College Park watchdog and former Newark City Council candidate hopes to deter crime by installing surveillance cameras at various businesses on Main Street.
For now, Foraker will be in control of the cameras as the city’s technological Big Brother. By the end of the year, his goal is to place live feed of the downtown area on the Internet. The public and police will be able to view traffic, crime and vandalism around the clock.
“Our police force needs better tools to solve crime,” he said. “These [cameras] are our baby sitters. This footage will be available for anyone. It will show anything suspicious or out of the ordinary.”
The Newark Police Department is aware of Foraker’s plan but is not partnering with him, acting Police Chief William Nefosky said.
“I’m not sure of the need for the cameras at this time,” Nefosky said. “It may be beneficial, but right now, it’s not something we’re going to get involved in.”
Using surveillance cameras isn’t unique to Newark. In Wilmington, a private nonprofit group called Downtown Visions partners with police to monitor a downtown surveillance system. The cameras cover the entire downtown district and some sections of the east and west sides of Wilmington.
“The cameras have been very beneficial to us in tracking criminal activity and in helping us to make arrests,” said John Rago, communications director for Mayor James M. Baker.
Newark resident David Robertson has lived on Main Street for 26 years, and said he has never felt threatened, despite the noise, the occasional violence and the drunkenness.
“However, I know from talking to businesspeople on Main Street that they have had to contend with broken windows and graffiti, which costs money,” he said. “I personally don’t like it [cameras], but on the other hand, since I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong, I don’t even think about it. I work in Wilmington, and it doesn’t bother me there, either.”
Foraker, 49, said he has chosen at least seven locations on Main Street for the surveillance cameras. He recently installed a small observation camera at Mayor Vance Funk’s law office.
“I didn’t want the mayor’s office to be the first choice because I don’t want to get involved in a political thing,” he said. “I’m doing this privately. [Funk] said he’s doing it as a citizen and a businessman.”
Fighting a chronic problem
Funk said his office is vandalized once a week and other businesses on Main Street have been spray-painted for years.
“I don’t even call the police anymore,” he said. “To catch someone that does that is just dumb luck. A lot of the time it happens after 2 a.m.”
Funk paid for the camera at his office, but Foraker is buying the rest. Foraker, who works as a pizza delivery driver, said some businesses have offered to donate money to the cause. The cameras cost $200 to $300 each.
Foraker said he plans to place two cameras on each building. He said he can move the cameras by hand to take photos from different angles. He plans to have the rest of the cameras up by the end of the year.
“Some of the cameras you’ll see, but others will be hidden,” he said.
Foraker’s initial discussions about the cameras were with Main Street businesspeople, including Richard Handloff, owner of the National 5 & 10 and four buildings on Main Street.
“There’s not much crime on Main Street,” Handloff said. “He asked me if I would consider the cameras, and I didn’t see any reason to turn it down.”
Barbara Clifton, a member of the Downtown Parking Committee who works at A Cut Above Hair Design at 92 E. Main St., said she hopes the use of surveillance cameras will increase.
“I think it’s a very good idea,” Clifton said. “We have too much vandalism and graffiti. It’s a very big problem.”
Funk said he asked the city to look into the cameras before.
“It’s a good enforcement tool,” he said. “But from a civil liberties standpoint, I am a lawyer, and when I study the Constitution, I don’t want to be a Big Brother. Once [the vandalism] stops, I’m going to take the cameras down.”
Drewry Fennell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, called the use of surveillance cameras “a public policy issue that certainly bears looking at.”
“It’s one thing to have a security camera inside a business to prevent shoplifting thefts for a specific and targeted purpose,” Fennell said. “It’s a different thing to have live streaming video accessible in everyone’s living room. I find it somewhat disturbing. We’re beginning to live in a surveillance society.”
Foraker admits there’s an issue of privacy, but said it’s for the residents’ safety.
“They have to accept a little bit of invasion of privacy on public streets,” he said. “There are no laws against filming on public streets.”
City solicitor Roger Akin said business owners are well within their legal rights to install cameras in public places.
“If people are doing things on a public street and if they are observed by a citizen, police officer and a camera, then they have given up their right to privacy,” he said.
Foraker said he has installed hidden or “dummy” cameras in College Park and in Towne Court Apartments, where University of Delaware sophomore Lindsey M. Bonistall was murdered in the spring.
Ryan Baker, regional portfolio manager for The Schwab Group, which owns Towne Court, confirmed the complex has cameras, but couldn’t say whether Foraker installed them. The complex’s management also uses closed-circuit television to monitor the complex.
Foraker said the dummy cameras can be an effective “psychological tool” to divert criminal activity. He hopes the cameras will make the city safer.
“[Police] can’t be everywhere,” he said.
The videotape will be handed over to the department for now. Once it’s operational, the footage likely will feed directly into police computers, Foraker said.
While the police department is happy to take them, Nefosky questioned whether the tapes would be useful.
“The problem with these cameras is, a lot of times, they don’t provide the quality photo that makes a difference in an investigation,” Nefosky said.