Jersey City Police Department Unveils New Crime-Fighting Tool: A Mobile Surveillance Unit

From his seat at the McDonald’s in the MLK HUB on Tuesday, William Moore could just barely see the city’s new crime-fighting tool: a mobile surveillance unit called “Eye in the Sky.”

But he had high hopes for the device, which the city unveiled yesterday.

“We need this here, especially for the seniors,” Moore said. “Kids will run you off, they’ll embarrass you, so something needs to be done.”

With three cameras and an extendable base that can raise up to 30 feet in the air, Eye in the Sky is a tool the city is counting on to help address and lower crime. The $100,000 device was acquired by the city’s Office of Emergency Management at no cost via the state’s Urban Area Security Initiative program.

The device, which can be operated both manually and remotely, will be moved around the city, but it was introduced to the HUB first because of crime concerns in that area, Mayor Healy said.

Both Newark and New York City have their own Eye in the Sky devices, Healy said.

A 21-year-old woman who declined to give her name said the device was needed in the neighborhood.

“Things have gotten worse over the past few years,” she said.

But Esther Wintner, a resident who was instrumental in bringing residents’ concerns over crime to the forefront, said there is a slippery slope with this kind of surveillance ability.

“I think it’s important to keep a watchful eye on any any police force from becoming militarized, so that the idea of enforcing laws remains one of policing, and not as a military force occupying a hostile area,” Wintner said.

Missing from Tuesday’s press conference announcing the device was the recently elected Ward F Councilwoman Diane Coleman, who called the lack of invitation “disrespectful.”

“I promised to address crime when I was elected. So is it a coincidence they get this six months before the election?” Coleman said. “But this helps the area and I welcome it,” she added.

The conference came three days before the city introduces 22 new police officers, which the mayor said will allow for more foot patrols.

“We’ll have more police presence,” said Healy, who added the decision was a response to complaints voiced at the four public safety meetings he and Police Chief Tom Comey held early this year.

The salary for 15 of the new officers will be paid for by a $1.85 million COPS hiring grant, a federal program that helps municipalities with crime problems hire new officers. The remaining seven officers will be paid for out of the city’s budget.

“We apply every year for every grant,” said City Spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill, “but we don’t always get them.”

Already Ward E Councilman and mayoral hopeful Steve Fulop, At-Large Councilman Rolando Lavarro, and Coleman are calling the move politically convenient after the city had previously rebuffed similar requests for community patrolling. In fact, Comey had previously said the city had too few police officers to conduct foot patrols, an assessment that left some former detectives unconvinced.

“It was only six months ago that the administration told us that there weren’t enough police officers in the department to have foot patrols. What’s changed? The mayor is in the middle of a tough re-election campaign and he’s desperate to show he’s doing something about escalating crime in this city,” Lavarro said in a statement. 

While the city will be adding 22 officers Friday to join the 13 added in April, 48 officers have retired or filed paperwork to retire as of December 1st, according to a police spokesman. There are currently 806 police officers according to city officials. Previously, Comey had said foot patrols were common in the 1980s, when the city had about 1,000 officers.

As recently as October, Lavarro had pushed to enact a long-ignored law requiring a police operational review after each mayoral election only to see his efforts fail. The purpose of such a study, he said, would have been to find out if there was any truth to the claim that foot patrols were unfeasible.

Questions over crime have become a heated talking point and promise to remain so, with Fulop adding former Police Chief Frank Gajewski to his slate to run for the Ward A Council seat. 

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Photos courtesy of Jennifer Morrill

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.